Iowa's highly decorated freak too much for Iowa State in the trenches

Iowa defensive end AJ Epenesa on the attack against Iowa State. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Richard Podhajsky

IOWA CITY, Iowa - There's hype. Then there's living up to the hype. A.J. Epenesa appears to have moved into the latter stage.

"Coach (Kirk Ferentz) has said before, 'You don't ask who started the fire, just put it out,'" Epenesa said after Saturday's 13-3 win over Iowa State. "So we just go out there and do what we do; we play defense and we try to hold them to where they are."

If the Iowa defensive line is a fire crew, Epenesa may be the driver engineer. The sophomore recorded five tackles, two sacks, forced a fumble and had a pass break-up on Saturday.

"He's a freak," defensive end Matt Nelson joked after the game. "I mean, he does some incredible things when he gets going like that. He's got a few plays like that every practice where he's out-running skill position players."

Epenesa was a highly-recruited out of Edwardsville, Ill. and played significant minutes as a true freshman. But Ferentz says he went through the normal growing pains.

"Last year, he was learning how to play, too," Ferentz said, noting nobody's had more hype coming to Iowa in his 19-plus years as head coach. "He was thinking about six things at once and you can't do that. So, what I saw from where I was standing today was a guy who was playing fast, like he had some purpose and wasn't over-thinking stuff."

The Hawkeyes again needed the defense to step up - the offense has now scored a combined six first-half points in two games. After creating their own hot spot on the first drive of the game, allowing Iowa State to get to the one yard line, they controlled the fire by keeping it to a field goal. They then completing extinguished the Cyclone offense, holding them to 100 yards the rest of the way.

"They came out with some stuff that we weren't really ready for; they kind of surprised us with some things they don't often do," said Epenesa, who is the son of former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa "And then we just kind of stepped it up, made our game plan, and tried to do what we do every day."

If A.J. Epenesa keeps doing what he has been doing every game thus far, his teammates will have fun following him.

"He did a tremendous job today and that's the thing about him is he just plays the entire game," senior defensive end Parker Hesse said. "And guys wear down as the game goes on and he just keeps getting stronger. He did a great job kind of closing the game out for us."

Injury report: Sophomore running back Ivory Kelly-Martin did not dress for Saturday's game due to an ankle injury. Kelly-Martin started against Northern Illinois in the season opener last Saturday.

"Ivory couldn't go yesterday, so we'll see what he looks like this week," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "But we're hoping sooner than later."

Junior linebacker Kristian Welch also missed Saturday's game against Iowa State due to an undisclosed injury after having started in the season opener.

Welch was replaced on Saturday by redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert, who finished with five tackles in his first career start.

"Welch was available today," Ferentz said. "He got to work out yesterday and looked pretty good. But he just didn't practice during the week, so we didn't want to put him out there."

Five different linebackers have started for Iowa in the first two games. In addition to Welch and Colbert, senior Jack Hockaday and juniors Nick Niemann and Amani Jones also have started at linebacker this season.

Jones started the season opener against Northern Illinois, but was replaced by Hockaday in the first quarter. Hockaday then made his first career start on Saturday against Iowa State.

Niemann has started both games this season and is third on team with 11 tackles. Hockaday leads the team with 13 tackles. 

Sophomore receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette injured his shoulder while catching a 45-yard pass from quarterback Nate Stanley in the third quarter on Saturday. Smith-Marsette appeared to be in a lot of pain, but Ferentz said after the game that Smith-Marsette's x-ray was negative.

Slow Slarters: Week 1 was the first time the Iowa offense was held to less than seven first-half points since the 2017 Outback Bowl, when Florida limited the Hawkeyes to just three. They hadn't been held to three or fewer points in consecutive first halves since October 2012, when they scored a combined six points over three first halves against Michigan State, Penn State, and Northwestern.

Nate Stanley, dual threat quarterback: College football coaches love having a dual-threat quarterback, but a passer-punter? Stanley, the Hawkeye quarterback, kicked his first punt of 2018 but the fourth of his career on Saturday. Of those four, three have been downed inside the opponents' 20 yard line. He's averaging 34 yards per punt.

Up next: Iowa will face Northern Iowa at 6:30 p.m. next Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The game will be televised by the Big Ten Network.