IOWA CITY — The “Break the Rock” slogan had presumably been put in mothballs way back in 2001.
Iowa broke through that season with seven wins after enduring two years of pain, but little gain. The Hawkeyes beat Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl, and third-year head coach Kirk Ferentz declared the rock broken. So long, fun motivational device.
But classic things never go out of style, and strength/conditioning coach Chris Doyle has returned the phrase to prominence here. Sophomore phenom defensive end A.J. Epenesa wore a shirt with “Break the Rock” on it to a postgame interview session at Kinnick Stadium Saturday after his Iowa team beat Iowa State, 13-3.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss, sort of.
Last year it was offensive skill-position players bailing out Iowa in its 44-41 overtime football win at Iowa State. Saturday, it was stifling, suffocating defense in the Hawkeyes’ 13-3 victory over the Cyclones at Kinnick Stadium.
Rock breakers is what they want to be. These players have known winning, so that’s not the boulder that needs crushing. Now, the rocks are the opponents. For two straight weeks, Iowa’s defense has broken them.
“You keep working on defense and keep hammering,” Epenesa said, “and you never know when the offense is going to break.”
Iowa State’s broke early in this game, and stayed broken. The Cyclones drove from their 28 to a first-and-goal at the Iowa 2 on their first drive. Three plays later, it was fourth down at the 1. Then ISU guard Josh Mueller was penalized for a false start and his team kicked an unfulfilling field goal.
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That was deflating, then the Cyclones offense deflated. Standout running back David Montgomery saw little green (17 rushes, 44 yards), through no fault of his own. Quterbacks Kyle Kempt and Zeb Noland saw a lot of black, as in the jerseys of defenders bearing down on them.
After sacking Northern Illinois five times the week before, Iowa sacked the Cyclone QBs four times. Epenesa had two of those, the second a strip-sack of Noland late in the game on the Iowa defense’s final play that symbolized its body of work.
“He’s a freak,” said senior Iowa defensive tackle Matt Nelson, who got a second-quarter sack of his own of Kempt that could modestly be described as violent.
“He does some incredible things when he gets going like that,” Nelson said of Epenesa. “He’s got a few plays like that every practice when he’s outrunning skill-position players.”
This is the player we heard about when he was an Iowa signee out of Edwardsville, Ill. A five-star recruit. Yes, Iowa with a five-star. From what we’ve seen so far, it looks like each of the five stars were earned.
But this has been an early-season virtuoso performance from the entire defense. Even the linebackers, who seemed like Iowa Question Marks Nos. 1, 2 and 3 two weeks ago.
The best thing Ben Niemann ever gave Iowa was his linebacking. A close second, it appears, is bringing brother Nick Niemann to the Hawkeyes. Through two games, sophomore Nick has looked almost as polished as brother Ben, now a Kansas City Chiefs rookie.
Jack Hockaday, a senior who wasn’t a first-game starter, looks like he’ll be hard to budge from the lineup. He had a team-high 13 tackles of Cyclones and broke up a pass.
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It all took some of the sting out of the fact Iowa’s offense has been lacking in production and entertainment value so far. When it needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to put a little space between the two teams, however, it got one. Iowa State’s defense was really good, too. Just not for quite as long as Iowa’s.
This game was a bummer for the Cyclones, to say the least. Coach Matt Campbell doesn’t know his team’s best offensive line combination, but he knows it wasn’t the one he used here.
“The line of scrimmage is where games are still won in this sport,” Campbell said. “They dominated.
“They have a very senior-led, excellent defensive front.”
Nelson said Iowa’s defenders are firefighters (“We’ve always got to go out there and put out the fire.”) and medics (“We want to stop the bleeding as much as we can.”).
The Hawkeye “D” sure was the team’s first-responder Saturday, and it kept responding all game. For the fourth-straight year, the Cyclones are the ones in this series with the wounded pride.
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