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Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa on his strip-sack that helped turn the tide in Outback Bowl, and forming an impressive tandem with Chauncey Golston Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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TAMPA, Fla. — A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston don’t start for the Iowa football team.

But they sure can finish.

The sophomore defensive ends turned in arguably the biggest plays in an Outback Bowl filled with them to help the Hawkeyes upend No. 18 Mississippi State 27-22 on Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium.

Epenesa bolted around the left side of the Bulldogs’ offensive line midway through the second quarter, planting an unsuspecting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald into the sod and jarring the football loose. Golston swallowed the bouncing ball. Epenesa forced four fumbles this season. Golston recovered three of them.

That turnover set up Iowa’s offense at the Mississippi State 13-yard line. Two plays later, the Hawkeyes led 17-6, which was the margin at halftime.

“That’s just repetition. I try to work that stuff every day, to work the tackle, get my move going, beat him and then come around and get the ball back for the offense,” Epenesa said. “Whenever we can get the ball to the offense, and especially at such good field position, that’s just what you want.”

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Midway through the third quarter, the game looked much different. Mississippi State had turned a pair of Iowa turnovers into a pair of touchdowns to lead 19-17. The Bulldogs got the ball back with a chance to build on that lead.

On third down from his 37-yard line, Fitzgerald stepped back and prepared to throw a screen pass. The ball was deflected and fluttered toward the line of scrimmage. Golston was there to pluck it for his first career interception. The Hawkeyes scored the game-winning touchdown 2 minutes and 44 seconds later.

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Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston had a fumble recovery and interception that helped Hawkeyes win the Outback Bowl. He felt he owed his team. Why? Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

 

Golston said the Hawkeye defensive line frequently makes plays like that in practice.

“It was just nice to see that it happened to me finally. I got my shot and I didn’t come up short,” Golston said.

“I just had my head on a swivel, saw it and ran to the ball.”

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Two turnovers that produced two short fields for an Iowa offense that had its hands full with a terrific Mississippi State defense. Two short fields that turned into two touchdowns. That’s 14 points that Epenesa and Golston had four big hands in producing.

Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson started at defensive end for Iowa this season. Hesse is a senior. Nelson, a junior who had 13.5 tackles for loss, will have a decision to make about whether to leave early for the NFL.

Epenesa and Golston will be back regardless.

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And that is one scary tandem for opposing offenses. No one on Iowa’s defense can change a game faster than Epenesa, who was named first team all-Big Ten Conference despite being a second-stringer on his own team. His 10.5 sacks this season were the most by a Hawkeye since Adrian Clayborn had 11.5 in 2009.

Golston, with nine tackles for loss, isn’t far behind.

“He’s a beast. He’s got a nose for the ball. Chauncey’s everywhere,” Epenesa said.

“Whenever me and Chauncey go in there, we have something to prove, too. We want to play. And we backed up Parker and Anthony, who are obviously great, but we want to be just as good as they are. We don’t want there to be a step down in talent or step down in productivity on the field.”

You could argue that there’s a step up when Epenesa and Golston step onto the field. In part, that’s because a healthy rotation at defensive end allows them to stay fresh. It’s also true that both took big steps forward this year in defending the run.

“We started to wear them down a little bit,” Epenesa said of the Bulldogs’ offensive line.

“Our rotation was really good, and the fact that it was so good is why we could keep going at such a high speed all game long.

READ MORE: Iowa's imperfect season gets a 'storybook' finish in Outback Bowl

Golston was unsteady on a couple of early Mississippi State rushing plays. He was still upset about that after the game. But he also knew that the plays he made later helped tilt the outcome in Iowa’s favor.

“We knew that this would be a defensive battle and whoever’s defense held up the longest would win,” Golston said.

“I let up early in the beginning. I let our defense down. They put me in the right position to make plays, and I didn’t. So to be able to make those key plays, I’m happy with myself for that.”

The thought of at least one more year of Epenesa and Golston should make Hawkeye fans happiest of all.

Follow the Register on Facebook and Twitter for more sports news. Mark Emmert can be contacted at memmert@dmreg.com or on Twitter @Mark Emmert.

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