Big Ten's best group of receivers help rookie QB Michael Penix get acclimated

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Nick Westbrook, Indiana's talented senior wide receiver, had a big touchdown catch in Saturday's opening-day win against Ball State, and he should have had another one. In what probably should have been the easiest catch of his career, a wide-open Westbrook watched the deep ball slide right through his hands, an easy touchdown slipping through right along with it.

He was able to joke about it after the game — "that's one of the easy ones that was too easy,'' he said — but that was only because Indiana still scored on the drive. The Hoosiers  scored on seven of their 12 offensive possessions in the 34-24 win, which was Michael Penix Jr.'s first career start at quarterback.

He played well, and his veterans receivers helped guide him along in IU's explosive offense. That's what veterans do.

"I didn't let it bother because the offense picked me and we scored,'' Westbrook said. "That's like only the second time I've ever done that on a ball like that, probably not since high school with something so easy. I guess I was too wide open.

"I'll work on it so it never happens again, but that's what we do, just move on from it to the next play. That's how our offense is. Just go win the next play. We're lethal and we want to put the dagger in. 

Westbrook is the leader of a wide receiving corps that leads the Big Ten East in career yards with 3,688. The argument can be made that Westbrook, fellow senior Donovan Hale and juniors Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle are the best receiving group in the Big Ten.

Philyor, who's always filled with bravado, said during camp that Indiana has "the best group of receivers in the country.'' That might be pushing it, but the numbers don't lie. Ohio State might like to argue which group is better, and that can be decided on the field next Saturday.

Here's a breakdown of the top four wide receivers on each Big Ten East team, with their year, catches, yards and touchdown  receptions during their careers thus far. They are updated through the first week of this season.

Graphic compiled by Tom Brew

Having so many experienced guys means they'll often be able to help out a young guy like Penix, who would the quarterback battle in fall camp over incumbent Peyton Ramsey and Utah transfer Jack Tuttle.  

"It could have went any way,'' Philyor said. "All the quarterbacks were doing a great job. Everyone was curious from the outside in, about who was going to get it. All three are good and they're all my friends. It's all good.''

But now it's full speed ahead, with Penix at the controls.

"We all had to get our feet wet with Mike, it was his first start. But he was really good. He was cool, calm and collected the whole game,'' Philyor said. "Mike catches on to everything quick, and he'll be that guy who gets better and better every week. Even when he came in in the spring, he learned everything real quick. He's a real bright guy.''

One of the reasons why Penix got the job was because of his big arm. He can make all the throws, especially the long ones. His first touchdown pass to Westbrook for 75 yards was literally perfect, catching him right in stride.

That weapon changes everything. We'll see more this week against Eastern Illinois (3:30 p.m. ET at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington) and certainly we'll see him attacking No. 5-ranked Ohio State a week from now as well.

"It's one more  dynamic we can add to our offense now, because people are going to have to worry about us going deep downfield all the time now,'' Westbrook said. "We saw that right away on Saturday even. They were up pretty tight on us early, but then as soon as we hit that big one, they backed off.''

"It wasn't too big for him. He was super calm, and it all rubs off on us. Even after the interceptions, he understood and he went right on to the next play,'' Westbrook said. "That arm, it's huge. He showed it (Saturday), and he'll keep showing it all year. He can fit it into any window.''

That's how it's going to be, the kid with the big arm and all his experienced weapons.