A.J. Epenesa

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Big plays ignite Iowa to halftime lead on Mississippi State in Outback Bowl

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Mississippi State seemed to start the game off well on defense, but big plays by Iowa’s offense and defense have stunned the Bulldogs in the first half of the Outback Bowl in Tampa. Iowa turned a 6-0 deficit after one quarter of play into a 17-6 advantage at halftime with big plays on both sides of the football.

Mississippi State cornerback Maurice Smitherman was ejected from the game early in the second quarter for targeting on Iowa’s Brandon Smith. Smith kept on his feet after the contact was made and scrambled to pick up two yards on the play by sweeping to the other side of the field, but the 15-yard penalty moved the Hawkeyes to the Mississippi State 33-yard line. The drive ended with Iowa scoring their first points of the game by way of a Miguel Recinos field goal from 43 yards.

Iowa took the lead with just one play on their next offensive series when Nate Stanley found a wide open Nick Easley down the field, and Easley took off and managed to reach the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown before a defender could close in on him with the angle.

Things got even worse for Mississippi State on the ensuing possession. Nick Fitzgerald was strip-sacked by Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, giving the Hawkeyes the football at the Mississippi State 13-yard line. Stanley then connected with Ihmir Smith-Marsette two plays later to give Iowa a 17-6 lead.

Mississippi State looked like they had a chance to cut into the lead just before halftime, but a holding penalty at the line of scrimmage wiped out a big pass play to inside the 10-yard line.

Iowa expected to bump Barrington Wade, not A.J. Epenesa, into starting role

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Iowa is off this week, but when the Hawkeyes return to action next week, it looks as though Barrington Wade will be sliding into a starting role on the defense. A vacancy on the first team opened up with an injury to Nick Niemann, but the Hawkeyes may find ways to keep some other players in the defensive mix as well.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker addressed the position concern with the media on Wednesday, noting that Wade will likely be the player getting the starting nod. But Parker also made sure to include A.J. Epenesa in the defensive strategy moving forward. The vibe is Iowa knows Epenesa is a key player, but is going to continue to allow him to develop a little more in a relatively reduced role.

“If we played him more, would he be as productive? That’s the thing you’ve got to really watch out,” Parker said, according to the Associated Press. “I really think the way we’re handling the situation, and it worked out the first four weeks, is that 25, 26, reps a game has really been his potential to really make some big plays. Now, obviously, you want to keep on doing that and pushing them forward, and I think he will the more you go on in practice.”

Epenesa has recorded 13 tackles in the first four games Iowa has played this season. Wade has been listed as the backup to Niemann, while Epenesa has been listed as a backup at right end. So it seems keeping players at their listed position is the chosen path for Iowa’s defense for now.

Iowa returns to Big Ten play on October 6 against Minnesota.