By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - A.J. Epenesa has reached the point as an Iowa defensive end where not doing much is something worth noting.
His performance in this past Saturday’s 38-14 victory over Miami of Ohio in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium has been a hot topic, but not because of what Epenesa did in the game, but rather what he didn’t do.
Iowa’s most hyped football player since probably Chuck Long heading into the 1985 season only had one assisted tackle and one pass break-up against the RedHawks.
Last year’s Big Ten sack leader had no sacks, or even a quarterback hurry.
Needless to say, it was nowhere close to a typical Epenesa performance where he dominates, or at least asserts his will, at the line of scrimmage, especially as a pass rusher coming off the edge.
Epenesa is usually a disruptive force, but for one of the few times this past Saturday, he wasn’t Super Man wearing shoulder pads.
Should that be a concern?
I bring that up because one of the main discussions points from the season opener is trying to explain why Epenesa was held in check from a statistical standpoint.
One of the explanations is that he was constantly double-teamed, and sometimes even triple-teamed.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked in his post-game press conference this past Saturday what can be done moving forward if teams continue to constantly double-team Epenesa as the Redhawks supposedly had just done?
The question was phrased as if Epenesa being constantly double-teamed was an indisputable fact.
“There’s nothing to do,” Ferentz said. “If they want to double-team, that’s two checkers for one. Right? It’s been a long time since I played checkers. But I think that’s a good thing.
“That’s going to be part of the deal, and he’ll have to live with that a little bit. “That’s the curse of being a great player."
Epenesa was asked multiple times after Saturday’s game about the challenge of facing double-teams.
“It makes it a lot more difficult if you play the game, but that’s just what I go through and I’ve got to get used to it,” Epenesa said.
Former Iowa offensive coordinator Don Patterson, oddly enough, saw it differently. He watched the game up close as he always does and then said Monday on the All-hawkeyes/KCJJ radio show and podcast that more times than not Epenesa wasn’t double-teamed from what he had observed.
We also had caller from New York who said he watched the entire game and counted the number of times that Epenesa was double-teamed, and the caller said it was fewer than 10 times.
Patterson gave part of the credit to the Miami of Ohio left tackle, which is 6-8, 315-pound junior Tommy Doyle from Edina, Minn.
Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge that the opponent performed well, and give credit where credit is due.
Miami of Ohio quarterback Brett Gabbert also deserves credit for keeping Epenesa off him by consistently getting rid of the football quickly.
Epenesa, and fellow defensive end Chauncey Golston, never really had a chance to wreak havoc in the pocket because they had to withstand pretty good blocking, and had hardly any time to do it.
Iowa only had one sack in the game, albeit a big one when reserve defensive end Amani Jones sacked Gabbert for an 11-yard loss in the third quarter.
We had another caller who wondered if Epenesa was nervous this past Saturday, and we quickly dismissed that because we’re talking about somebody who already has made first-team All-Big Ten and led the conference in sacks.
Nothing against the RedHawks, but they will not be Epenesa's high point for nerves this season.
But then the caller clarified what he meant in that he wonders if Epenesa might have been nervous from trying to live up to the enormous hype.
I still say most of it had to do with the quick release from the quarterback, and that the left tackle played well.
And regardless if you agree on whether Epenesa was constantly double-teamed or not, the RedHawks did often have a running back who provided another line of protection for the short time that was needed.
Miami of Ohio might have shown the blueprint for how to avoid getting sacked by Epenesa and his cohorts, and it’s pretty simple: get rid of the ball before they have a chance to get you.
The coaches for Rutgers, which is Iowa’s next opponent on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, obviously, have seen the tape of the Miami of Ohio game and had to be impressed with how the RedHawks didn’t allow themselves to be exploited by Iowa’s strength on defense.
But Rutgers also has different personnel and a different plan of attack that now features graduate transfer McLane Carter at quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound southpaw, who transferred from Texas Tech, passed for 340 yards and two touchdowns in the 48-21 victory over Massachusetts in the season opener last Saturday.
Isaih Pacheco also rushed for 156 yards and scored four rushing touchdown, so the Scarlet Knights have the potential to be balanced.
But will they make quick decisions at the line of scrimmage once the ball is snapped and then make quick passes? And can they block Epenesa without having to always double-team him as Miami of Ohio appeared to have done, depending on your perspective?
The important thing is that Iowa won its season opener by 24 points and held its opponent to just 59 rushing yards.
That is dominating the line of scrimmage, even without getting to the quarterback.
Epenesa has to realize that he is a marked man right now.
He always has been in the spotlight as a former five-star recruit who made an immediate impact for the Hawkeyes.
But the level hype that he now brings to each game has been matched by very few in the history of the Iowa program.
Most of the star players under Ferentz needed that one last season to solidify their legacy and their place in history, whereas Epenesa is already a legend without having even started a game before this past Saturday.
He was named a preseason first-team All-American by at least eight different news outlets, including the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated.
He was also named to at least five preseason Watch Lists, including for the Bednarik Award, the Nagurski Trophy and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
It is no secret, or mystery, that players sometimes save their best, or just perform at their best against the best competition.
Epenesa is so talented and respected that maybe sometimes he just brings out the best in his opponent because they know they'll be in serious trouble if they don’t perform at their best.
I personally think the Epenesa chatter and concern is a whole bunch of nothing, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had two or three sacks against Rutgers because it seems unlikely that Rutgers will get rid of the football as quickly, and as effectively, as Gabbert did for Miami of Ohio.
And the two tackles for Rutgers had better be ready to play at their best because they’ll be in big trouble if they bring anything less.
The Miami of Ohio game was an aberration in regard to Epenesa’s statistics.
Several factors had to fall into place and they did.
One game hasn’t changed my opinion that A.J. Epenesa is a dominant force who has to be accounted for at all times, and there will be times when that means having to double-team him.
But as we saw with Miami of Ohio, there are other ways to do it, including getting rid of the football ASAP.