A.J. Epenesa entered the season with sky-high expectations for his junior season, his first as a starter. He was a preseason All-America pick and a fixture in the top half of the mock drafts for the 2020 NFL Draft. Epenesa's junior season hasn't quite gone as the hype train predicted, particularly from a statistical standpoint. But he's still been a very, very, very good player, one who's been able to make a big impact despite often being double- or triple-teamed by opposing offenses.
Epenesa had probably his best game of the season on Saturday, one that saw his fearsome pass-rushing skills on full display. Epenesa tallied four tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble against Minnesota, numbers that helped him earn Defensive Player of the Week honors from the Big Ten:
It was Iowa's first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honor this season and their first since the award was won last season by... Epenesa, in the wake of his dominant display against Illinois (in a game Iowa won 63-0). Some of the highlights from Saturday show just how destructive Epenesa can be:
Epenesa's sack on second down on Minnesota's final drive all but iced the win for Iowa. He lined up at defensive tackle and went through the middle of Minnesota's offensive line like it was nonexistent:
A.J. Epenesa, ladies and gentlemen. pic.twitter.com/L55WzeBvuk— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) November 17, 2019
I think my favorite play of his on Saturday was the forced fumble though:
AJ Epenesas impact is incredible. The Gophs stayed away from him as much as possible, as he was doing whatever he pleased against their LT. That didnt stop him from doing this. pic.twitter.com/s5M2Uuz4X9— Travis Wingfield (@WingfieldNFL) November 17, 2019
He shucks Minnesota's left tackle like nothing, then eludes the running back trying to get a block him and delivers a ferocious karate chop to Tanner Morgan's right arm to force a fumble. Pure pass rush bliss right there.
Epenesa had his biggest sack tally of the season against the Gophers, but his dominance went beyond just those 2.5 sacks.
The Iowa defense got a big boost from the play of A.J. Epenesa! pic.twitter.com/9OtNqFF6kP— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 18, 2019
Nine QB pressures?! In one game? Tanner Morgan is going to be having nightmares of Epenesa closing in on him for the rest of the season.
The QB pressure stat is one that really speaks to how much of an impact Epenesa has been able to have this season. He has seven total sacks on the year, which puts him in a tie for 6th for most sacks in the Big Ten. But sack or no sack, Epenesa has been pressuring the hell out of QBs all season:
QB Pressures (Big Ten leaders according to @PFF)— Blair Sanderson (@BlairRIVALS) November 18, 2019
A.J. Epenesa 47
George Karlaftis 45
Carter Coughlin 44
Joe Gaziano 37
Shaka Toney 37
Chase Young 36
Zack Baun 35
Josh Uche 35
Aidan Hutchinson 34
Sacks are great, but a pass rusher's primary responsibility is to get pressure on the QB -- and Epenesa has been doing a magnificent job of that all season. So kudos to A.J. on his dominant display on Saturday, the crowning achievement (so far) of his season. We probably only have a few more games to enjoy Epenesa wreaking havoc in an Iowa uniform, so let's make the most of them.