Iowa Football

A.J. Epenesa made it Black Friday for Nebraska's offense

14 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and two sacks is a full day even by Epenesa's standards

Iowa Hawkeyes players celebrate with the Heroes Game trophy after defeating the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., Friday. (Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa Hawkeyes players celebrate with the Heroes Game trophy after defeating the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., Friday. (Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports)

LINCOLN, Neb. — The Hawkeyes had to do something on defense to free up defensive end A.J. Epenesa. The numbers he put up Friday, he was the rain that was falling on the Huskers.

You don’t get 14 tackles (career high), 5 tackles for loss (career high) and two sacks (not a career high) without the defensive coordinator giving you free reign to feel the game and do whatever you want.

“There was no scheme to get A.J. loose,” defensive end Chauncey Golston said with a laugh. “The plays they were calling got A.J. loose and he was taking advantage of that. We don’t scheme to get a player loose.”

That’s when Golston really started laughing. No, Iowa’s defense doesn’t scheme to get anyone loose. It’s a disciplined unit and scheme that allows little to no freelancing.

That was all Epenesa doing his thing within the framework of Iowa’s defense and the Huskers not being able to handle that heat during the No. 17 Hawkeyes’ 27-24 victory Friday at Memorial Stadium.

“What a phenomenal effort by him,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “The defense played well, but he was certainly a catalyst for us out there.”

When you’re having a day like this, can you get tired?

“In the moment, not really,” Epenesa said. “Adrenaline is flowing. Your mind is on continuing to make plays, continuing to be at the ball. That was my mindset today. I had success and I was just around the ball all of the time.”

One of the big and maybe kind of unseen numbers in this game was the Huskers’ futility on first down. Nebraska ran 29 first-down plays for 56 yards, a 1.9 yard average. The Hawkeyes were disruptive enough on defense to keep big plays in check enough to win the game on a last-second field goal.

Iowa’s game plan focused heavily on keeping Huskers quarterback Adrian Martinez from running loose. Martinez got to know Epenesa a little bit.

“He seemed pretty good to me,” Martinez said. “I have a lot of respect for those guys on Iowa’s defense. I think there’s a reason why he’s talked about as one of the top players in the country.”

No, Epenesa’s fellow defenders had no idea he was filling the stat sheet like that during the game, but they kind of thought maybe he was having a day.

“I’ll bet it is,” offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said about the stat sheet. “Every time he got a sack or a tackle for loss, I was going crazy. I’d scream ‘Let’s go 9-4 (Epenesa’s number)’ at the top of my lungs. That’s my buddy. Seeing him do what we all know he can do is pretty awesome.”

There’s an energy that comes with a performance like this. Defensive ends aren’t supposed to have 14 tackles.

“When (defensive line coach Kelvin Bell) coach Bell told us his stats, we were like ‘14 tackles, two sacks, six TFLs,’” Golston said. “Brah, you’re the coldest.”

Epenesa got the NFL question last week after the Illinois game. He said he hasn’t been thinking about it. After a performance like Friday, you tend to believe him.

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“He’s just a dominant player,” safety Jack Koerner said. “Whether he’s making the stats or not making the stats, his presence is always felt. He does so much for us that the stat sheet doesn’t show.”

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

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