How Indiana redshirt freshman Michael Penix won the fall camp quarterback competition became abundantly clear on Saturday afternoon in East Lansing, Michigan.
There had been flashes of the Tampa native’s immense potential over the course of the last year.
But those eye catching moments in 2018 were always within the context of a quarterback rotation, and then Penix tore his ACL against Penn State just as it appeared he might be taking over full time.
In 2019 Penix was impressive in the season opener against Ball State despite two interceptions, and then mysteriously left the second game early with what turned out to be an injury.
The 6-foot-3 Penix just couldn’t seem to stay on the field long enough to fully put his talents on display.
That all changed against No. 25 Michigan State over the weekend.
Penix showed off a complete quarterback arsenal against one of the better defenses in the country. Precise short throws, laser strikes down the field, throwing on the move, pocket presence, proper reads, poise, accuracy, mobility and speed — Penix had it all in spades against the Spartans.
Before the season Penix referred to himself as a “pro style quarterback that can run.”
On Saturday, he just looked like a potential pro.
For the game Penix was 33-for-42 passing for 286 yards and three touchdowns. He added a score on the run in what was just the third start of his college career, his first appearance in a game in three weeks, and his first Big Ten road appearance.
Indiana fans finally got to see what the 19 year Penix is all about, and despite another disappointing loss to an elite conference foe, they were left wondering just what this guy is capable of over the next three and a half seasons.
Save for Nate Sudfeld, IU’s recent quarterbacks haven’t had the complete package to hang with the top talent in the Big Ten.
Against Michigan State, Penix was not only hanging, at times he had the Spartans looking lost, exasperated, and outgunned.
“Penix was on fire there and played extremely well,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said after the game. “I don’t think we’ve had a game like that defensively in a while.”
With the scored tied at 31 and Michigan State at the Indiana one yard line with under two minutes to go, it was the thought of giving the ball back to Penix that caused Dantonio to opt to run out the clock rather than try to score a touchdown.
“I just felt like I didn’t want to give them any time on the clock the way they’d been throwing the ball down the field,” Dantonio said.
Michigan State preseason All-American senior linebacker Joe Bachie was also impressed with Penix.
“We knew he had a strong arm,” Bachie said. “You obviously saw that he would drop back and sling it deep if he wasn’t throwing the bubbles. He’s got a bright future for sure. He passed for a ton of yards on us.”
Penix’s arm talent is unmistakable, but that may have taken a back seat to his accuracy in East Lansing.
Playing before a raucous road crowd, Penix completed 20 straight passes at one point in the game, good for the second longest such streak in Big Ten history behind only Chuck Long’s 22 (against IU) in 1984.
On the season Penix has now completed 69.6% of his passes (71-for-102) and still has just those two interceptions to go with 809 yards and six touchdowns. He’s on pace to break Peyton Ramsey’s IU single season completion percentage record of 66% set just last year.
With Penix on the field the IU offense takes on an entirely new look.
With the defense spread out and respecting the deep ball, running lanes were open for Stevie Scott, who broke off several respectable carries against the No. 3 rush defense in the country on his way to 66 yards running and another 28 receiving.
Penix’s three touchdowns were darts thrown in places that only his receivers could get to them and with enough velocity to get home before defenders could close the gaps. He found the 6-foot-4 Donavan Hale in one-on-one size mismatches, helping the senior receiver have a game (7 receptions, 99 yards, 1 touchdown) that highlighted his enormous and largely untapped potential.
Penix also helped junior receiver Whop Philyor live up to his Twitter account handle “Superstar Whop” after a 14 catch, 142 yard and two touchdown day.
The aerial display was only part of the story.
On a naked bootleg in the first half, the former high school track star beat a defender to the pylon for a score that most quarterbacks couldn’t finish.
It was an impressive, breakout performance for Penix, especially when you consider that his head coach wasn’t sure how long he would last on Saturday.
“Really didn’t know if he (Penix) was going to be able to go the whole game to be real honest with you,” IU head coach Tom Allen said after the game. “I had Peyton (Ramsey) ready if we needed to do that.”
Of course Penix did play the entire game against the Spartans, and his head coach liked what he saw, especially under the circumstances.
“To be able to do what he did in this environment with just a couple games under his belt and really nothing similar in terms of the opponent,” Allen said. “Just really impressed by the way he performed.
“Our kids fought their tails off and gave everything they had. They’ve just got to find a way to make one more play.”
For too many times, Allen’s Hoosiers have seemingly been one or two plays away against the Big Ten’s elite.
He now has a quarterback with no shortage of plays in his toolkit.
With Michael Penix for the next three and a half years, it suddenly seems like an inevitability that Allen’s Hoosiers are going to start finding those plays and pulling off some big wins.
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