Holiday Bowl analysis: Hawkeye star A.J. Epenesa makes game-turning play
SAN DIEGO — Iowa’s proud defense hadn’t allowed more than 24 points in a game all season.
USC reached that total just 90 seconds into the second half of Friday’s Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium.
The Hawkeyes barely had time to ponder that sobering slap to the face before they were summoned right back onto the field. The Trojans, in a daring ploy to snatch momentum, had surprised Iowa with an onside kick and recovered it at their 46-yard line.
USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis promptly delivered an 11-yard strike to Tyler Vaughns, his 22nd completion.
And his last.
Momentum was about to be snatched. But not by the Trojans.
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa made the play of the game the next time Slovis dropped back. Epenesa burst into Slovis’s blind spot, taking aim not at the quarterback, but the football in his right hand. He swiped down on it just before Slovis started bringing his arm up and forward, dislodging the ball and buckling the quarterback’s elbow at once.
USC recovered the fumble for no gain. Slovis headed to the sideline never to return.
The Trojans didn’t score another point.
Iowa’s defense did, getting the last touchdown in a 49-24 victory.
“We just got on to the bench, talking about the last drive. Bam, we're back on the field. We practice for situations like that. We were prepared for it,” Epenesa said.
“I was able to get him with the speed rushing, getting him to be able to lean a little bit.”
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Epenesa, a junior who is thought to be a first-round NFL Draft pick if he comes out early, finished with 2.5 sacks against USC. If this was his final game as a Hawkeye, he made it count. He was named defensive MVP.
Last year, it was an Epenesa strip-sack in the second quarter that helped the Hawkeyes beat Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl.
In Iowa’s regular season-ending win at Nebraska on Nov. 29, Epenesa had 14 tackles, 4.5 of them for loss.
Despite a season spent fighting off double-teams and other people’s expectations, Epenesa again played his best football at the end. He finished with 11.5 sacks, the most by a Hawkeye since Adrian Clayborn had that total in 2009. Epenesa also led Iowa with 10.5 sacks in 2018. He is the first Hawkeye to record double‐digit sack totals in consecutive seasons since Matt Roth in 2002‐03.
Iowa senior middle linebacker Kristian Welch was in pass coverage but looking back to see where Slovis’s eyes were directed when he saw Epenesa move in for the crucial sack Friday.
“I see A.J. coming around the corner and I knew it was lights out,” Welch said. “That feeling that you get when you know your teammates are playing their cans off and you’re playing for them, too. And it’s just incredible team spirit that we have.
“Every single game I think, ‘Man, if the offensive line and the entire offense doesn’t know where he’s at.’ His ability to still make plays is just a credit to him.”
Slovis finished his rookie season with a completion percentage of 71.9. That is the best of any Pac-12 quarterback who’s ever attempted at least 300 passes, breaking the 2011 mark of 71.3% by Stanford’s Andrew Luck.
So his loss was sorely felt. USC turned to Matt Fink, and Iowa’s defense turned up the pressure.
Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann sacked Fink for a loss of eight yards the first time he tried to pass. In the fourth quarter, Fink was trying to call a third-and-1 play from his 20-yard line when the football was snapped early, sailed over his head and was recovered by Welch. Iowa took a 42-24 lead three plays later.
“I felt like we made it hard on him a lot. You could tell out there when we were checking stuff, he was getting frustrated,” Iowa safety Geno Stone said of Fink.
“I feel like all our communication really messed the snap count up because when he was still trying to talk, we were screaming stuff out.”
Niemann sealed things with an interception he returned 25 yards for a touchdown late in the game.
Epenesa’s play that knocked Slovis from the game ended up being decisive. That’s what impact players do, and no Hawkeye had a bigger impact on this 10-3 season than he did.
Epenesa has plenty of relatives in California. He had a large contingent on hand Friday, and knew exactly where they were sitting. Just like he knew exactly where Slovis would be sitting in the pocket.
“All my people are there,” Epenesa said afterward, gesturing to the bleachers. “The people I love, the people I care about, they’re all up there in that corner showing support. And I’m really happy that they’re here. It means so much to me and it makes me feel so good.”
His people will likely be following Epenesa in the NFL next year. On this night, though, the entire Hawkeye defense followed his lead for a stirring victory.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.