It's not often that one of the Big Ten's weekly awards for standout individual play is wrapped up before 12 of the league's 14 teams have even kicked off, but that's precisely what happens when you have a performance like A.J. Epenesa had for Iowa on Friday against Nebraska. The numbers are quite literally jaw-dropping:
14 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks
Remember: that's 14 tackles... from a defensive end. That is not normal. So it came as no surprise when the Big Ten honored him as the Defensive Player of the Week on Monday:
It's the second time Epenesa has earned the honor this season (he also got it after his dominant display against Minnesota two weeks ago) and the fourth time he's earned Defensive Player of the Week honors in his Iowa career. Let's talk a little bit about how flat-out fantastic he was on Friday.
14 tackles is the most for an Iowa defensive player this season. Kristian Welch plays middle linebacker, a position explicitly designed to rack up tackles in Iowa's defensive scheme. His season-high in tackles was 12, against Illinois last week. Outside of Epenesa, Iowa's single-game tackle leader this year appears to be Jack Koerner, who had 13 stops in the Penn State game.
To find an Iowa player -- at any position -- with more than 14 tackles in a game, you have to go back to Josey Jewell. He had 16 tackles apiece in Iowa's losses to Michigan State and Penn State in 2017.
The last defensive linemen I can find with double-digit tackles are Nate Meier, who had 10 tackles against Indiana in 2014, Drew Ott, who had 13 tackles against Ball State that same year, and Louis Trinca-Pasat, who had 10 tackles against UNI (also in 2014). One other defensive lineman since 2009 has had 14 tackles in a game: the immortal Thomas Nardo, who had 14 stops against, weirdly enough, Nebraska back in 2011. But with all due respect to the Nard-dog, he was not quite the all-around defensive menace that Epenesa is -- and particularly how dominant Epenesa was against Nebraska on Friday. Epenesa had 4.5 tackles for loss on Friday; Nardo had 1.5 in his game. Epenesa had a pair of sacks; Nardo had none.
I can't even find the last time an Iowa defensive lineman had more than 14 tackles in a game. Maybe Aaron Kampman?
Of course, eye-popping tackle numbers are only part of what made Epenesa's performance so incredible. As noted, he also had 4.5 tackles for loss to go with two sacks and two QB hurries. Epenesa's sacks show just just how relentless he is as a pass rusher:
2 sacks in the 2nd half today for A.J. Epenesa pic.twitter.com/VElZODjubZ— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) November 29, 2019
On his first sack, Epenesa starts from a standing position and flows to the inside, where he shrugs past the Nebraska guard and makes a beeline for the QB. Martinez has no prayer of doing anything but getting crushed to the turf. On his second sack, Epenesa lines up on the interior, where he again has his way with a Nebraska guard and heads for the QB. Martinez steps up in the pocket and tries to get away, but there's no hope of that once Epenesa gets a hand on him.
Epenesa is a damn good pass rusher off the edge. But as we saw in this game and also in the Minnesota game two weeks ago, he's a damn cheat code lined up at defensive tackle or attacking through the interior of an offensive line.
He even trolled Nebraska by throwing the damn bones.
Oh, and he killed a hapless Nebraska tackle with the slightest touch.
We unearthed some must-see footage of WWE legend Jim Ross calling A.J. Epenesa's offside penalty against Nebraska: pic.twitter.com/U9Fw4oukLj— Go Iowa Awesome (@IowaAwesome) December 1, 2019
We probably have just one more game to enjoy Epenesa in an Iowa uniform; let's be sure to savor it. Players like him come along only rarely and even players as outstanding as him have games like he had against Nebraska on the rarest of occasions. It's been a pleasure to watch you work for the last three seasons, A.J.