Iowa’s defense on a roll heading to Minnesota

Published 9:55 pm Tuesday, October 2, 2018

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Perhaps the biggest question about Iowa’s defense heading into October was the way it has used sophomore pass-rushing star A.J. Epenesa.

The Hawkeyes, at least for now, have enough talent to be able to keep Epenesa on the bench until they need him.

Iowa (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) enters Saturday’s road game against Minnesota (3-1, 0-1) after a bye week ranked fifth in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 13 points per game. Iowa is third nationally in yards allowed with 260.5 per game.

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With numbers like that, the Hawkeyes don’t have to mess with the success they’ve had using Epenesa (four sacks, two forced fumbles).

“That’s one area where I think that we’re probably a little deeper, maybe, than we thought,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “A.J. is a guy who is talented. I think he’s starting to find a little bit of a groove in the pass rush sense, and that’s a good thing for us … that’s a position where we feel like we have pretty good depth right now.”

Iowa’s success has started up front, its depth bolstered by its health.

While the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Epenesa is likely the most physically gifted lineman on the roster, the Hawkeyes currently have more experienced options for their starting spots.

Seniors Parker Hesse and tackle Matt Nelson, who have 62 career starts between them, have been the catalysts for a unit that has continually forced opponents into difficult situations by stuffing the run. Add junior end Anthony Nelson, a preseason second-team All-Big Ten pick, a breakout season by senior Sam Brincks and strong play from Chauncey Golston, and Iowa can often unleash Epenesa and others on the quarterback after forcing obvious passing downs.

That, in turn, has allowed the linebackers and defensive backs to play loose and free.

Jack Hockaday and Kristian Welch, both first year starters at linebacker, are 1-2 in tackles on a team that has allowed just one run longer than 20 yards in 126 tries.

The Hawkeyes and Auburn are also the only teams with just one rushing touchdown allowed, though Iowa will be without talented linebacker Nick Niemann for “a few weeks” according to Ferentz after hurting his leg in a 28-17 loss to Wisconsin on Sept. 22.

“You can see it,” safety Amani Hooker said. “They always get to the quarterback and make him make quick decisions, especially in the run game too. They help out a lot too, getting off blocks. They’re doing a great job.”

Typically when Iowa has its defense clicking like it has through four games, Ferentz can be content to control the tempo by running the ball while waiting for the opposing defense to leave itself exposed to the pass.

The bye week should have helped the Hawkeyes on that front.

Starting running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, who missed two games with an ankle injury, returned to rush for 72 yards on 14 carries in a 28-17 loss to Wisconsin on Sept. 22. Still, the extra time off should be beneficial as Kelly-Martin prepares to play eight consecutive Big Ten games in his first season of full-time duty.

“The biggest thing is just doing anything you can to recover,” Kelly-Martin said. “When you’re on the field, you know you’re going to try to play lights out every single play….after the game is over and everything, you want to get your rest.”