Hawkeye mailbag: Is Iowa's A.J. Epenesa due for a game-wrecking Saturday at Wisconsin?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Ohio State's Chase Young is arguably the most dominant player in college football. He’s now considered the No. 1 prospect for the 2020 NFL Draft and is even garnering credible Heisman Trophy buzz. That’s rarefied air for someone who rarely touches the football.

Why mention this in an Iowa football article? Well, before the season, Young and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa were mentioned in the same breath as preseason all-American defensive ends.

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa has 3.5 sacks through eight games; he had six through eight games a year ago before going on a late-season tear to finish with 10.5.

And given what Young did to Wisconsin two weeks ago — a superhuman four sacks, two of which forced a lost fumble in a 38-7 Buckeyes win — could Saturday bring the game-wrecking performance from Epenesa that Hawkeye fans have been waiting for?

That was an intriguing and smart question that surfaced before Wednesday’s scheduled Hawk Central Facebook Live broadcast, which was canceled because of technical problems.

Young has a nation-leading 13½ sacks this season, 10 more than Epenesa. And while it’s incorrect to say that Epenesa is having an off year — he’s been disruptive and constantly faces two blockers — it’s accurate to say he hasn’t had the game-changing defensive whoppers he was known for (including in the Outback Bowl) last season.

After forcing four fumbles and logging 10½ sacks a year ago, Epenesa’s at zero and 3½ during Iowa’s 6-2 start.

Does Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at Wisconsin (3 p.m., Fox) offer an opportunity for Epenesa to break out?

Maybe. Young's success came from striking from all angles against Wisconsin's vaunted offensive line. Young notched sacks from the left and right sides. He even came through the middle of the line to stuff a third-down screen pass. Iowa, in contrast, rarely mixes up Epenesa's alignment. He's typically at right defensive end — which, in my opinion, makes it easier for teams to scheme against him.

To win as a 9½-point underdog, Iowa could use a big play or two from the defense. Epenesa has fallen slightly on NFL Draft boards (he was in the mid-first round on the latest big board from The Athletic). This would be a great time for the five-star phenom to give himself and the Hawkeyes a boost.

We had several other subjects ready and waiting before the video difficulties hit. We'll still march through them.

TOPIC: When was the last time an Iowa quarterback led the Big Ten in passing yards?

A great question off the realization that Nate Stanley's 1,950 yards through the air are tops in the league. After checking with the University of Iowa's trusty sports information office, a notable answer came back.

Brad Banks, the former Heisman runner-up, is the last Hawkeye to stake that claim, with 2,573 yards in 2002.

Stanely will require a strong finish and a bowl game to hold onto that No. 1 spot. Penn State's Sean Clifford (1,931 yards), Michigan's Shea Patterson (1,773), Michigan State's Brian Lewerke and Minnesota's Tanner Morgan (1,761 each) are not far behind.

TOPIC: How should Iowa best combat Wisconsin's jumbo package?

The Badgers used seven offensive linemen at times against Iowa last fall. That creates extra gaps at the line of scrimmage, and that challenged Iowa's base 4-3 defense.

I would think that defensive coordinator Phil Parker is considering a 5-2 (or 5-3) look with Epenesa and Chauncey Golston as the ends and Cedrick Lattimore, Brady Reiff and Daviyon Nixon as tackles. It'll be fun to see what Parker has cooked up.

TOPIC: Who is Iowa's biggest "X" factor against Wisconsin that isn't a household name?

Great question. Here are two: cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia.

If the Hawkeyes are true to their word, they're going to push safeties Geno Stone and Jack Koerner into run support to combat Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor. That means Hankins and Ojemudia will be virtually one-on-one with talented outside receivers such as Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis. 

Hankins was burned three weeks ago by Purdue's David Bell, but responded with a lock-down game against Northwestern. If he and Ojemudia force a few early breakups (and maybe even log a turnover), Wisconsin might feel shaky in trusting Jack Coan to move the chains.

If you want a real under-the-radar pick, how about fullback Brady Ross? If the senior can consistently clean out linebackers to jump-start Iowa's struggling run game, maybe that's what it'll take for Mehki Sargent, Toren Young or Tyler Goodson to break a big one ... and take pressure off Stanley.

TOPIC: How does the trio of Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick rank among sharpshooting backcourts in Iowa basketball history?

Let's pump the brakes on Fredrick, who looked good in Iowa's exhibition opener but has yet to play a regular-season game. And it's unlikely that Bohannon plays a full season.

Going back just three years, that Bohannon-Peter Jok 1-2 shooting punch of 2016-17 was about as pure as it gets. Jok and late-1990s Kent McCausland are the two best shooters I've witnessed at Iowa; and Bohannon is already the school's 3-point leader. 

What is more exciting to think about: If Bohannon redshirts and Wieskamp returns for his junior season, the Hawkeyes' 2020-21 starting five would be tantalizing. You'd have Bohannon at the 1, Fredrick at the 2, Wieskamp at the 3, Jack Nunge (or perhaps Xavier Foster) at the 4 and Luka Garza at the 5.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.