Iowa Football

Epenesa-a-lanche: Iowa's A.J. Epenesa put a season into 2 minutes against Illinois

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) hugs his brother after their college football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) hugs his brother after their college football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Some avalanches happen faster than A.J. Epenesa happened Saturday against Illinois.

You have to chart this chronologically, because the most impressive thing about the damage the sophomore defensive end did to the Fighting Illini in the second quarter of the Hawkeyes’ 63-0 victory at Memorial Stadium was the back-to-back-to-back football lightning strikes.

If this performance happened in metro youth football anywhere, the other team would’ve asked to see Epenesa’s birth certificate.

How’d the 20-year-old with a beard get into the metro youth game?

OK, Illinois was already down 14-0. The Illini took a kick after running back Mekhi Sargent’s 10-yard TD run. And then avalanche. A big one.

Defensive end Chauncey Golston beat his block. We’ll let him take it from there.

“I just secured the tackle,” Golston said. “He popped it out and scored it. I was happy.”

The official box score gave Golston the forced fumble at first. Quick replay review showed Epenesa just took a quick swipe at the ball.

“I was able to pop it out nice and easy and was able to pick it up,” Epenesa said. “That’s a drill we work every day, fumble recovery.”

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The force took some sorting. There was no mistaking Epenesa’s 19-yard return for a TD was Epenesa. So, 21-0 Hawkeyes.

Chronologically, time on the clock after this was 13:42 in the second quarter.

So, Illinois took the ensuing kickoff. It didn’t have a choice. This is how football works.

On first down, Epenesa sacked quarterback A.J. Bush. On fourth down, Iowa was in punt safe, but only punt safe-ish. Iowa targeted defensive back Dawson DeGroot, a 6-1, 190-pounder whose job on that play was to block Epenesa, who’s 6-5, 277 pounds.

It went like you thought it might.

“We put that in Wednesday or Friday,” Epenesa said. “We thought we could put some size up against this guy. We had a size advantage and we worked speed and strength to get to the punter.”

Linebacker Nick Niemann recovered and Iowa had first down at Illinois’ 11.

Time check: 11:50 was on the clock.

On first down, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley threw an 11-yard TD to tight end T.J. Hockenson.

Time check: 11:43.

In that two-minute span, Epenesa forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, scored a touchdown (first of his career), recorded a sack and blocked a punt. Iowa scored on its first play following the blocked punt. The touchdowns were 1:59 apart.

“A.J. is a guy who just keeps gaining ground and improving,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He practices hard and it’s carrying over to the game field. I thought all the guys up front did a good job, but A.J. (Epenesa) certainly gave us some energy up there.”

Epenesa is from Edwardsville, Ill., about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Champaign. It only felt like Epenesa had a massively disruptive play for each and every one of his 120 to 150 friends and family in attendance.

That two-minute stretch was monumental, but his other minutes weren’t bad, either. He finished with eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble return for a TD, a blocked punt, a pass breakup and at least one QB hurry.

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“I’m focused on myself and trying to win games and improve,” Epenesa said. “I think if you can win games and improve, then you start getting noticed.”

Epenesa is going to start getting noticed.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.