Merriam Webster defines rhythm as “movement, fluctuation, or variation marked by the regular recurrence or natural flow of related elements.”
After three straight season ending injuries, Michael Penix, Jr. hasn’t seen much in the way of the regular recurrence or natural flow of anything beyond the loneliness of rehab. Instead, playing a position where rhythm is everything, Penix’s three-plus years in Bloomington have been a roller coaster ride of fits and starts. And while the one constant during Penix’s college career has been his golden left arm, even that loses value when it doesn’t function instinctively and unison with his legs and mind.
The injuries have been about more than just the physical trauma to his body. There have been three straight offseasons spent rebuilding rather than developing and compiling repetitions. There is also the compounding mental effect of repeatedly seeing dreams dashed, and wondering when it will happen again.
So while yes, it is a bit stunning to watch an All-Big Ten quarterback, and someone frequently mentioned as Heisman Trophy candidate, come out and look like the third-string, walk-on quarterback in the season-opener, perhaps it shouldn’t be.
The signs were there. Penix struggled in his prior two return-from-injury season openers against Ball State in 2019 and Penn State in 2020. But by week three in each case the now 21 year-old was in All-Big Ten form — and that is where both he and the IU coaching staff hopes the Tampa native is now as IU gets set to welcome No. 8 Cincinnati on Saturday.
If Indiana has any chance to win on Saturday, the week three Mike we saw in 2019 at Michigan State (33-42, 286 yards, 3 touchdowns) and 2020 vs. Michigan (30-50, 342 yards, 3 touchdowns) must make an appearance. While we haven’t seen anything close to week three Mike through two weeks, both Penix and the coaching staff believe that is where things are headed.
“I think it was definitely a very positive step in the right direction for Michael,” head coach Tom Allen said of the week-to-week progress from Iowa to Idaho. … “I felt last week’s practice was better for him than it was the week before. So as we continue to help this process move forward, I think you’re just going to see him getting better and better.”
After throwing three interceptions at Iowa, Penix didn’t make mistakes against an admittedly far inferior Idaho team. At one point he threw eight straight completions, he had good touch on the ball, and seemed to find the confidence and instincts to escape the pocket and run mid-game.
Penix threw mostly short passes on Saturday night. He didn’t complete a ball that went for more than 10 yards. In part that was a function of taking what Idaho was giving him, and if those less than dynamic live reps are what is required to get his starting quarterback in a groove, Allen will take it.
“I think it’s more rhythm,” Allen said of Penix. “I think it’s more timing than technical. I think it’s being able to do what you do. Fundamentally sound at a high level, you know, with being live. … It’s one thing you can’t do is simulate a game and being able to have all it involves in that and how you feel in that moment. There’s no game simulation machine for that.”
The test on Saturday is going to be much more Iowa than Idaho. Cincinnati is No. 10 in the country, allowing just 129 passing yards per game thus far in 2021. Offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan knows the opportunities for big plays against the Bearcats will be limited, and his offense must be surgical in identifying and capitalizing on them when they appear.
“We need to throw the ball better vertically down the field,” Sheridan said. “I think that is a fair assessment and certainly it is a point of emphasis. … We have shown with this group that we are capable of doing it.”
Penix completed passes of 33, 32 and 21 yards amid the chaos in Iowa City. Wide receiver Ty Fryfogle admitted that a deep ball went through his hands against Idaho because he jumped too soon. Now the task is to find more of those chunk plays while avoiding the mistakes.
“We definitely want to connect on deeper routes, those explosive plays can definitely make a difference in the game,” Penix said.
Of course waiting for explosive plays to develop can mean the quarterback takes more hits. In Penix’s case it means he has to rediscover his pocket instincts while blocking out the injury what-ifs. Penix was sacked twice against Idaho. Those are moments when fans and everyone in the program cringes as they wait to see if he gets up. But they are also moments when he has to reignite the synergy between his mind and legs.
After rehabbing throughout a third straight offseason and then being protected during fall camp, it was reasonable to wonder whether Penix was ready to escape the pocket and take hits. Sheridan views that as part of the job description.
“If the pocket creates room for you to push the pocket and run and get first downs and use your legs when appropriate, you’ve gotta play quarterback,” Sheridan said.
And Allen assures us Penix is being encouraged to run if that is the proper read.
“He can run. You’ve seen him run around. That’s not an issue at all. He’s 100 percent with all that,” Allen said. “So it’s just a matter of him being able to continue to move around and play football. Whenever people are stressing us, just extend the pocket if we have to, slide in the pocket, move around and get the ball down field.
“I did think, though, there was one (against Idaho) where he was flushed out of the pocket, got a facemask call, and then ran and slid. The decisiveness of that decision was good. And just to be able to get back there and play football and not over think things. And that’s part of it you’re just working through. And that’s where I think he’s got to continue to play.
“I feel like that the more he plays, the better he’s going to get.”
Continue to play Penix will, and tested he will be against one of the best defenses in the country. Looking to avoid a repeat of his performance against Iowa, Penix’s progression and the Cincinnati defense are about to collide.
If history is a good indicator, Penix will look like an All-Big Ten performer on Saturday.
And IU likely can’t afford much less if they want to get their much anticipated 2021 season on the right track.
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