INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Penix Jr. is a redshirt freshman with loads of talent. He reminded everyone of both of those things on Saturday.
Penix, making his first college start at quarterback for Indiana, had a huge day in leading the Hoosiers to a 34-24 win over Ball State at Lucas Oil Stadium. He was 24-for-40 passing for 326 yards and a score. It was the second-most passing yards in a debut for a freshman quarterback dating all the way back to Hoosiers legend Antwaan Randel-El in 1998.
That’s talent. But there’s also that part about being a freshman. Penix threw two interceptions in the first half, and he knows that can’t happen. But considering it was his first start, going home with a win was the big thing.
“It felt great,’’ Penix said, “I wasn’t too nervous, just mostly anxious and ready. It was a great team win.’’
The Hoosiers scored points on seven of their 11 possessions. And his one touchdown pass was a beauty, a 75-yard strike to senior wide receiver Nick Westbrook in the first quarter.
“I kind of knew once that play started that it was was coming to me,’’ Westbrook said. “I just made the play, and Mike put it in a great spot and we ended up with a touchdown. The corner crashed on a corner blitz, so it was just me and the safety and I knew I had him beat. You couldn’t ask for a better ball than that one. It was perfect, right there.’’
Westbrook loved that throw, obviously, but what he liked even more was how Penix bounced back after the two picks on back-to-back drives in the first half.
“He didn’t have his head down after the interceptions. He just kept playing,’’ Westbrook said. “He shook it off naturally, but I just made sure he was good when I talked to him. I’ve been there. I’ve made mistakes too, made one today. I told him to just keep his head up and keep playing. One of them was our fault anyway, coming out of a route wrong. He handled it great.’’
The IU offense under first-year coordinator Kalen DeBoer follows this mantra of going 1-0 on every play. It’s a simple thought, really, but it works. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great play or a bad play, just go 1-0 on the next one.
That’s exactly what he did with the two interceptions. He just “flushed them.’’
“It was just mental errors (on the interceptions), just getting through my reads,’’ said Penix, a Tampa, Fla. native who about 15-20 family members and friends at the game for his first start. “It’s that same 1-0 mindset and I just flushed it. My teammates kept me up and we just kept playing.’’
Penix became a danger with his feet, too. He wound up being IU’s leading rusher, gaining 67 on seven carries, many of which came on third down to keep drives alive. Penix, who doesn’t like to be called a dual-threat quarterback — “I’m a pocket passer who can run,’’ he said earlier in the week — but his legs made a big difference Saturday.
“No, I was just going through my reads, and if I had to pull it, I was gone. I just wanted to keep drives alive and keep pushing. That felt good.’’
Especially since this was his first game with live bullets since tearing his ACL against Penn State last October. He never even thought about his knee, he said, and he looked like a star out there. It’s clear that the IU coaches made the right decision in picking him to start.
His teammates love having him out there.
“We didn’t feel like we could be stopped. Every time we had it, we felt like we were going to score,’’ said Westbrook, who finished with 3 catches for 103 yards. “His arm, it’s huge, and he showed it today, and he’s going to keep showing it the rest of the season. It’s a rocket and sometimes it jolts you in the hands a little bit and wakes you up. He can fit it in any window, and it’s good to see.’’
Penix also is comfortable reading defense and getting through his reads to find and open guy. He connected with seven different receivers. That was Westbrook’s sixth career 100-yard game, and tight end Peyton Hendershot (4 catches for 69 yards) and wide receiver Ty Fryfogle (6 catches for 41 yards) both had career highs.
It’s just Game 1, and their are bigger fish to fry for Penix and his offense. He clearly seems up for the challenge.
And there is no doubt now. This, for sure, is his offense. The Michael Penix Jr. era at Indiana has begun.