A.J. Epenesa's best game as a Hawkeye exemplifies his growth
LINCOLN, Neb. — Slightly mixed messages emerged from Iowa’s postgame interviews Friday, as amazed teammates tried to explain the most dominating performance of A.J. Epenesa's three-year Iowa career.
“There was a lot of times where we knew the play before they ran it,” senior Kristian Welch said. “And we were able to get him a check to go make the play.”
Welch’s perspective came from a middle linebacker, who happens to make live-action defensive calls.
Another perspective came from Epenesa’s defensive-end wingman, Chauncey Golston.
“There was no scheme to get A.J. loose,” Golston said, chuckling throughout his answer. “The plays that they were calling got A.J. loose. He was just taking advantage of that.
“When (position) coach (Kelvin) Bell told us his stats, we were like … ‘Oh my God.’”
The numbers told the only truth that mattered at Memorial Stadium.
Epenesa amassed 14 tackles, a staggering figure for a defensive end that’s been schemed against all season long, in Iowa’s 27-24 win at Nebraska. That count included two sacks and a career-best 4½ tackles for loss, most of them coming at the most opportune time.
“That’s what they expect from me,” Epenesa simply said of his coaches and teammates. “That’s what I expect from myself.”
Did Nebraska not do a good job accounting for him? Did Epenesa just play the game of his life?
Welch and Golston were both correct.
Iowa called plays to put its best defensive player in advantageous spots.
And its best defensive player played like its best defensive player.
With this regular-season-ending performance, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound junior defensive end will be well-positioned to match his preseason all-America status. After this game, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz explained why he has been intentionally reluctant to offer on-field praise for Epenesa this entire calendar year.
“I know everybody wanted to make him an all-American back in the offseason, and I’m all for that,” Ferentz said. “Except (he) had some steps to take. I don’t know if he is or isn’t, but I wouldn’t want to trade him, that’s for sure.”
Whether some want to admit it or not, Ferentz has a point. He said that experience was the only way Epenesa would take that next step as a superstar.
Epenesa certainly has taken it. There was no doubting that No. 94 was Iowa's most impactful player down the stretch.
In the early stages of the season, Epenesa's statistics weren't showing up. It was clear that he was a little bit frustrated, while trying to learn to play through double teams and massive attention.
One tackle in the opener against Miami of Ohio. One at Iowa State. Two against Middle Tennessee State. Two at Michigan. Zero against Purdue.
Hardly the numbers of someone expected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick in April, especially when seeing the numbers fellow Big Ten Conference defensive end Chase Young was accruing at Ohio State.
But as his snap counts piled up, Epenesa's motor only got stronger.
During Iowa’s first eight games, his season totals were 22 tackles, including 4½ for losses (all sacks).
During the three-game win streak to end the regular season, he delivered 23 tackles, including 8½ for losses with 4½ sacks.
This was the dominant player we expected to see. He's up to nine sacks for the season, just 1½ shy of his sophomore total when he received far less attention.
"Linebackers put me in some good calls and good situations," Epenesa said, lending credence to Welch's explanation. "It’s also motor and want-to, to get to the ball. Tonight, I just wanted to get to the ball. I was able to beat blocks and do some things I haven’t done as well early in the season.”
His 13th tackle Friday was a sack of Adrian Martinez, giving Iowa the ball back with 3:14 to play.
After Iowa fumbled it away, Epenesa’s 14th and final tackle was pivotal. On a first-and-10 with Nebraska at its own 44 while trying to get into a winning field-goal position, Epenesa stoned Wyatt Mazour for a mere 1-yard gain. That led to a Nebraska punt and Iowa’s game-winning drive in the final 32 seconds.
“Adrenaline’s flowing. Your mind is just on continuing to make plays, continuing to try to be at the ball,” Epenesa said. “That was my mindset today. I was having some success, and I was just around the ball all the time. That’s something I’ve been wanting to do all season long.”
Epenesa has not stated his NFL Draft intentions, but if he gets a first-round grade from the College Advisory Committee, he'll almost certainly go. He has indicated he would play in Iowa's bowl game, so his Hawkeye career is likely continuing.
But assuming this was his last regular-season game as a Hawkeye, it was quite the encore.