A Breakthrough for the Ages: How Michael Penix Jr. and Indiana Got Their Moment

Penix Jr. surprised even his own family back when he committed to the Hoosiers. Now, the kid from Florida has led them to a program-defining win.
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The replay review took a while, minutes piling on top of each other, emotions held hostage, a legion of souls suffering in pigskin purgatory. Did desperately lunging Michael Penix Jr. break the goal line with the football before his hand landed out of bounds? The answer would decide the winner of Penn State vs. Indiana.

Such a close call, so much riding on it for Indiana—this was either a breakthrough victory, or one more log of kindling on the towering pyre of Hoosier football dejection. Finally, referee Ron Snodgrass turned and faced America and rendered the verdict: The call on the field stands. Indiana defeats No. 8 Penn State, 36–35, its first victory over a top-10 opponent since 1988.

At that moment, 60 miles north in the Indianapolis suburb of Broad Ripple, Connor Hitchcock lost it.

“Finally! Finally! Finally!” He screamed, his long sandy hairy floating up and down as he pogo-sticked across his living room in black sweatpants and a black IU T-shirt. Dropping to his knees, Hitchcock held his hands out in gratitude for an oft-ignored prayer that at last was answered. “Yes, God, Yes! Yes! Yes! They finally did it!”

Hitchcock is that rarest of animals, a devout Indiana University football fan. They are rarely seen in the wild, for good reason—it’s a basketball state, the program historically stinks and the heartbreak is eternal. When the losing streaks are 32 years to Ohio State and 33 years to Michigan, with many near-misses in many potential statement games, the scar tissue is thick.

So when the must-have play for once was made, and the borderline call for once went the Hoosiers’ way, the catharsis was powerful—and, fortunately, caught on camera. “That’s a lifetime of extreme disappointment being released in 20 seconds,” Hitchcock says.

Michael Penix Jr. lunges for the game-winning two-point conversion

Closer to the climactic scene in Bloomington, a similar explosion of joy rattled the old rafters of Nick’s English Hut, one of the foundational campus bars along Kirkwood Ave. General manager Pete Mikolaitis has been around a while—he saw Indiana shock No. 1 Duke in the 2002 Sweet 16 in Nick’s, and he saw Christian Watford hit the shot to beat No. 1 Kentucky in 2011 in Nick’s. For once, the Hoosiers had a football moment that sent the students spilling onto Kirkwood in a traffic-stopping frenzy.

“With everything that’s going on, what happened Saturday ranks right up there with those two moments,” Mikolaitis says. “It was quite the scene.”

Inside Memorial Stadium, the few family members of players and coaches permitted to attend raised as much ruckus as they could. Especially Michael Penix Sr., his mother, Cheryl; and two of Michael Jr.’s uncles, Al Woodson and Joe Bain. Watching on TV back home in Tampa, the rest of the family swore they could hear grandma screaming in joy.

“You’d swear there were 100,000 people in the stands, even if it was only 200,” Michael Sr. says. “The look on the whole team’s faces, the joy in their eyes—it was one of those times you could just cry.”

So he did. His son had just delivered the most iconic ending in Indiana football history, his Great Leap Forward destined to be framed on the wall in Nick’s, destined to be remembered for decades by fans who have had so little else to cherish. Michael Sr. shed a few tears as he reveled in a moment he once was adamantly against ever happening.

***

The school library at Tampa Bay Tech was converted into a press conference room on Dec. 20, 2017. Michael Jr. sat behind a table flanked by his younger brothers, Mekhi and Mishon, with three hats in front of him—one for South Florida, one for Florida State and one for Indiana. The four-star quarterback chose the Hoosiers, put on the hat and signed his national letter of intent.

Applause filled the room. Michael Sr. stayed in the back, stewing.

“I didn’t want him to go to Indiana,” Michael Sr. says. “It was so bad and I was so selfish. I didn’t even speak to him when he signed.”

Penix was hoping that his son would stay in Florida. He liked Willie Taggart, the Florida State coach who had offered Michael Jr. scholarships in previous years when he was the coach at South Florida and at Oregon. He certainly didn’t mind the hometown option at USF, with Charlie Strong and quarterbacks coach Shaun King.

Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr.

In six starts as a freshman last season, Penix Jr. threw for 1,394 yards with 10 touchdowns.

Michael Sr. was fine with Little Michael’s original school choice, Tennessee. Butch Jones’s staff had recruited him for a long time—Robert Gillespie started the process and invited him to the Volunteers’ camp in June 2016, and quarterbacks coach Nick Sheridan liked what he saw of the athletic lefthander once he got there.

“He was very raw, but you could see he had ability,” Sheridan says. “We liked him.”

After watching a couple of his high school games, Tennessee made the scholarship offer. Penix accepted it the following April. But Sheridan had left the school by then for Indiana, and the 2017 season went sideways for Jones.

After consecutive years going 9–4, the Vols plummeted to 4–8 and Jones was fired on Nov. 12. That led to a fiasco of a coaching search that included firing the athletic director in the middle of it, and eventually Tennessee hired Jeremy Pruitt on Dec. 7. From there, things changed rapidly.

Hedging bets, Penix took an official visit the next day to USF and set up a visit with Indiana. Temperatures were in the 30s when Penix arrived, but that didn’t deter him. In the back of his mind, he was thinking that an NFL quarterback didn’t get to choose where he plays, and getting some experience playing in the Midwest would help quell any concerns of cold-weather franchises about drafting a soft Florida kid.

When Pruitt’s staff didn’t show much interest in keeping Penix in the fold, he decommitted Dec. 13—the same day as fellow four-star QB Adrian Martinez.

“That made me have a chip on my shoulder,” Michael Jr. says.

Says Michael Sr.: “He was a little bitter about that [the cold shoulder from Pruitt and his staff]. Some other people were bitter, too. But you can’t sit back and say, ‘If, if, if.’”

Little Michael squeezed in one more official visit, to Florida State. But the trip to Indiana resonated—he had a rapport with Sheridan, and he loved the energy and optimism of head coach Tom Allen.

“A lot of people said, ‘Why go all the way to Indiana?’ “ Little Michael recalls. “Why not?”

Michael Sr. had his list of reasons why not. Why go to a school with a losing tradition? Did they care about football? He didn’t go on the official visit, so the staff had no opportunity to win him over on campus the way they did his wife, Takisha.

Michael Sr. had coached his oldest son for years growing up—teaching him, pushing him, offering guidance and advice on a thousand things a quarterback and a competitor needed to know. Little Michael had always listened to his dad. But not now.

Finally, after the signing, it was time for the son to settle family business with the father.

“I know what I’m doing, daddy,” Michael Jr. said.

“I realized, this isn’t about me,” Michael Sr. recalls. “When I realized that, I cried and said, ‘I’m sorry, son.’ I acted really immature. I was like a spoiled brat, not a pops.

“It turns out, he made a good decision.”

***

Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr. runs in a 2019 game vs. Maryland

A year ago, Penix Jr. became the first Indiana freshman to start the Hoosiers' opener since 1998.

After a freshman season that ended with a torn ACL and resulted in a redshirt, Penix won the starting job last year over veteran Peyton Ramsey. It was his time to shine, and he was ready. But recurring injuries kept knocking him out of the lineup.

He played two games, then missed two. He played three games, then missed one. He played one, then was shut down for the rest of the regular season. Ramsey finished the slate and piloted the Hoosiers in the Gator Bowl against Tennessee, which was another in the endless series of breakthrough wins turned disasters—Indiana blew a 13-point lead in the final 4 1/2 minutes and lost by a point.

Despite the injuries, Allen was sold on Penix as the program’s future. Ramsey transferred to Northwestern. Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer left for the head-coaching job at Fresno State, and Sheridan was promoted to that spot. The two of them would ride together in 2020.

The pandemic turned everything upside down, of course. But finally, the season was ready for liftoff.

Back in Tampa last Thursday, Michael Sr. loaded up the car and headed north with his mom and Little Michael’s uncles. Takisha stayed home for Mekhi’s high school game. They drove to Murfreesboro, Tenn., and stopped for the night, then finished the 16-hour drive Friday.

With hopes high, they arrived at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon and settled in for a struggle. Penn State was beatable, but the Indiana offense was not clicking. Little Michael wasn’t sharp and wasn’t in sync with his receiving corps. Sheridan’s debut as a college play-caller was not going well.

“I didn’t do a very good job for about 58 minutes,” the OC says.

An Indiana possession with a 20–14 lead and 4:55 left ended in a three-and-out when a Penix laser slipped through the hands of normally reliable tight end Peyton Hendershot. Three players later, Penn State connected on a bomb to take the lead, 21–20.

Here was what appeared to be the Hoosiers’ final chance, taking over at their own 26 with 2:30 remaining. The Nittany Lions unleashed their pass rush, and star defensive end Shaka Toney pounded Penix into the artificial turf twice. On third down, Toney chased Penix as he threw incomplete. Fourth down was another incompletion, and the game seemed to be over at that point. Another Hoosier heartbreaker.

Penn State took over the ball at the IU 14 with 1:47 left. The Hoosiers had just one timeout. Prudent clock management would, at worst, leave the Nittany Lions kicking a field goal with less than 30 seconds remaining and making Indiana score a touchdown to win. At best, a Penn State first down would allow the Lions to end the game.

Allen thought of all that and told his defense to let Penn State score. James Franklin did not effectively communicate that possibility to his players, and so they obliged Indiana. Devyn Ford ran to the goal line and seemed to realize his mistake at the last second, but it was too late—he scored. And Indiana had the time to try to produce an eight-point possession for the tie.

Penix responded with the drive of his life. He completed one to his top target, Whop Philyor. He completed two to Javon Swinton—his first college receptions. He threw one to Jacolby Hewitt—also his first college catch. Then he hit Hendershot to the goal line. Penix pushed the pile into the end zone on the next play for the touchdown.

Indiana still needed a two-point conversion for the tie. With the backfield empty, Penix had options left and right—but also the option to keep the ball if the middle was open. He chose that option, only to find that Penn State collapsed into the area, so he had to cut to the left and circle around for the score.

In overtime, Penn State scored first for a 35–28 lead. That led to the possession that will live in Indiana lore. On third and goal, Penix hit Philyor for the touchdown—and then Allen went for two and the win.

“I was excited that coach Allen had the confidence to make that call,” Michael Jr. says.

In the stands, Michael Sr. was less sure. “I’ve got to be honest. I was like, ‘Whoa, let’s kick it.’ ”

Once again, Little Michael had the better vision of what was to be.

Sheridan called for a crossing-route concept, sending receivers from either side of the formation into the end zone at various depths. But Penn State pressure was coming for Penix again. He felt it and took off to his left, toward the pylon, toward victory.

“I just looked at the pylon and kept a laser focus on that,” Penix said.

The decision did not look promising. Safety Jaquan Brisker appeared to have the angle. Penix lunged, Brisker pushed.

“It was just me versus him,” Penix said.

The effort was remarkable for several reasons. For one, it took the 6' 3" quarterback every inch of his outstretched body to close the distance to the goal line. For another, he had to keep his legs off the ground to avoid being marked down. For a third, he’s a lefthander who had the ball in his right hand—and somehow didn’t lose his grip while being shoved in the back and fully extended.

When he landed, it was simply too close to call at full speed. Importantly, the call on the field was that Penix got the ball to the goal line before his hand went down out of bounds. Given the closeness, the call could not be overturned.

Indiana had its breakthrough win. Michael Jr. had his breakthrough moment. Little Michael looked up in the stands at his father, who yelled down to his son, “You showed me how tough you are!”

***

Back in Broad Ripple, after picking himself up off the floor, Connor Hitchcock got busy. He owns Homefield Apparel, a company that has a licensing agreement with many schools, including Indiana. He called a graphic artist and said, “I need a design of a hand reaching a ball to the pylon in three hours.”

The design was finished on Sunday. The licensing deal was struck Monday morning. And now for $32—hey, history ain’t cheap—Indiana fans can own “The Reach.” Demand has been brisk.

“We’re boxing up several hundred for delivery as we speak,” Hitchcock said earlier this week.

A quarterback from Florida who was committed to Tennessee and went to Indiana over his father’s strident objections is the creator of the most iconic play in Hoosier football history. Michael Penix Jr. may have many more great days as a quarterback, but his Great Leap Forward will always stand alone.

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