Player to Watch: Iowa Star Defensive End A.J. Epenesa

By John Morgan on October 11, 2019 at 10:00 am
Jan 1, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) reacts after a force to fumble the ball against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the second quarter in the 2019 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2008, Iowa is 4-4 against Top-10 teams and even in their losses, they have kept the games close. Penn State handed Iowa one of those four losses in 2017, but it took a final drive that no Nittany Lions fan will soon forget. Much like every year, the 2019 Iowa Hawkeyes once again feature a good defense and it’s led by preseason All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa. For Iowa to move that record to 5-4 against Top-10 teams, the Nittany Lions will have to protect quarterback Sean Clifford and that starts with the dubious task of slowing down Epenesa.

Epenesa is projected as a high first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and it’s with good reason. In his career, the 6’6 junior has 17 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. So far this season, he has two sacks and two tackles for loss. In 2018, Epenesa was named to the first-team All-Big Ten team on defense after leading the conference with 9.5 sacks. He was named a preseason All-American by several media outlets including the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News.

In 2017 when Penn State pulled off the two-point victory on the final play despite out-gaining the Hawkeyes 579 to 273 yards, the offense's ability to mostly neutralize the Iowa defensive line ("mostly" because Anthony Nelson did bat down a pass) was key. It was the prototypical game at Kinnick that many have come to expect.

Epenesa is a game-breaker, plain and simple. (Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports)

When asked about Iowa, James Franklin said, “I talk all the time about 75-percent of college football teams will beat themselves by turning the ball over or penalties or whatever it may be. They are not one of those programs.” What has made Iowa successful over the years has been their ability to force their opponents to make the mistakes that they avoid. One way they will try to do that on Saturday is with Epenesa off the edge against Will Fries and first-year starter Rasheed Walker.

Penn State's offense thrives when the playmakers can get the ball in space, but if they cannot contain Epenesa, it could throw the entire offense off. Should that happen, it could be one of those typical Kinnick games opposing teams have come to know and hate.