BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — The two critical goals of offensive football, they say, are to score points on most every drive and not turn the ball over. Indiana did exactly that late Saturday night, scoring on seven possessions — and they needed every last point.
The Hoosiers beat pesky Western Kentucky 33-31 in front of a record crowd of 25,171 at Houchin Industries/L.T. Smith Stadium, getting career nights from quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and kicker Charles Campbell. Penix completed 35 passes for the first time ever, gaining 373 yards in the air, and Campbell made four field goals to stay perfect on the year.
Indiana never trailed in the game, but Western Kentucky never went away, either. Their frenetic, fast-paced offense gave the Hoosiers defense fits all night, and this was a battle to the finish.
Penix, who had struggled with two three-interception games during Indiana's 1-2 start, was spot on against the Hilltoppers.
"Against Cincinnati, he was just pressing. He's been trying to do too much and make something out of nothing at times,'' Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "I never thought his confidence was ever shaken, but I did know that he just needed to relax and keep playing and not worry about making mistakes.
"I told him to just relax and just be you and play with a smile on your face. He's got such a great ability to make those tight-window throws; he's done that ever since he's been here. We had a bunch of guys that got involved tonight, and that was great to see.
Charles Campbell also had a career game, making four field goals to stay perfect on the season. He's now 7-for-7 on the season with field goal attempts, and has made all 12 extra points. For his career, he's made 19 of 20 kicks and all 37 PATs
Staying perfect this year almost didn't happen, though. Campbell didn't get a good foot on a 51-yard attempt that came up short, but Western Kentucky was offsides, and he got another chance from 46 yards. He made that one easily.
"I'm a big golfer, and I believe in a breakfast ball,'' said Campbell, who's from Jackson, Tenn. I'm so thankful that (penalty) happened on my first field goal. I just didn't hit it that well and it came up short, but I got the next one, thankfully.
"It was It was a crazy night. I felt like I was out there kicking a lot. It was so much fun, obviously.''
He was out there a lot. Indiana scored touchdowns on its first two 11-play drives, racking up 160 yards.
They moved the ball on their next four possessions, too, but had to settle for field goals each time. Campbell was perfect each time. He made kicks of 46, 37, 25 and 48 yards. The shortie might have been the most important, because it put Indiana back ahead by nine points (23-14) just before halftime, when the Hoosiers got points on a 55-second drive after Western had scored a touchdown.
Penix Jr. was sharp out of the gate, leading the Hoosiers on two long scoring drives early, with both of them ending in touchdowns. His first pass was dropped, but then he completed eight in a row on those next two drives to give Indiana a 14-0 lead. Running back Stephen Carr scored the first touchdown from a yard out, and Penix had the second one.
Because Western Kentucky had gone three-and-out on its first drive, the Hoosiers had a 160-0 yardage advantage after those two drives.
Indiana moved the ball consistently throughout the half. Their first four drives were all 11 plays or more, and on the fifth drive, they got a field goal in eight plays in just the final 55 seconds.
The offense was clicking all night long
“It felt good. The offense, we did a lot of great things. We did our jobs, and everybody executed at a high level. It was just simple execution," Penix said. "I was just going through my reads, and trusting my eyes and trusting my feet.
“Just coming in, I wanted to make sure I took care of the ball and took what they give me, making the smart play and not trying to make the hero play. I just wanted to make sure I went out and had fun and trusted my brothers, knowing that they trust me. It was real fun out there.’’
Penix was 35-for-53 passing for 373 yards, with zero interceptions. The 35 completions were a career high, surpassing the 33 completions he made against Michigan State in 2019.
His 373 yards were second only to his 491-yard day last year against No. 2 Ohio State. Running back Stephen Carr has 109 yards rushing, his second 100-yard game with the Hoosiers.
Penix had a big night without his favorite target so far this year. D.J. Matthews, the exciting transfer from Florida State, was injured on a punt play early in the first quarter and did not return.
Instead, Penix focused in on finding his two long-time targets, seniors Ty Fryfogle and Peyton Hendershot. Fryfogle, who struggled with three drops last week, had 10 catches for 98 yards and Hendershot, the tight end, had six catches for 94 yards. Many of them came on third-and-long situations
Penix knew that Fryfogle would have a bounce-back game.
"He's a dude, so I'm going to get him the ball whenever he's open. That's my guy," Penix said. "That's somebody that I'm with every day. It would take a lot for him to make me mad. He's a great player and I'm always going to continue to trust him.
"And Peyton, you can always just trust him. He's worked so hard to get better this offseason, and he catches everything. He made a lot of big plays for us again tonight.''
Indiana needed every one of them, too, because the Hoosiers' defense struggled to keep up with Western's fast-break offense. The Hilltoppers had 458 yards of total offense themselves, with quarterback Bailey Zappe throwing for 365 yards and three touchdowns.
Western coach Tyson Helton loved the fight in his team, and hated that they came up short in pulling off the upset.
"First off, I love how our football team battles. That football team we just played, in Indiana, is extremely talented. And our guys battled extremely hard,'' Helton said. "They fight, scratch and claw – I’d go to war with those guys any day of the week, and I love to coach them. It was a pleasure to be out there and watch this football team play tonight and I’m very proud of our guys."
Indiana is now 2-2 on the season, and is back on the road next week for a huge game under the lights at No. 6 Penn State. The Nittany Lions, who lost to Indiana in the season opener last year for only the second time ever, are now 4-0 and are looking like the best team in the Big Ten
What's most obvious, though, is that Penix's teammates have an enormous amount of respect for him, as a player and a friend. They've watched him go through two brutal rehabs for torn ACLs, plus a shoulder and clavicle injury during his time at Indiana. Getting back out on the field was never a given, not with all those injuries.
So to see him tear it up and lead a team to victory, well, it means a lot to them, too.
"He was out there slinging the ball today," Campbell said of Penix. "He had, what, almost 400 yards. That's nuts. The dude is so mentally strong. I strive to be as mentally strong as Michael Penix. He's a dog. He really is."