BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Sure, they are teammates, but they are also the best of friends. For Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., his love and admiration for wide receiver Ty Fryfogle "goes way beyond football.''
They've know each other since January of 2018, when Penix arrived mid-year after graduating from Tampa Bay Tech High School in Florida. Fryfogle, a quiet and unassuming young man from Lucedale, Miss., was a true freshman at the time, and he hit it off with his future quarterback right away.
They've played catch and run routes together forever, and Fryfogle has caught thousands of balls from the left-hander. They've experienced the good, and experienced the bad. Mostly, they've been there for each other, regardless of timing or circumstances, or health and well-being.
Last year they were so good together that they were the key pieces in an Indiana offense that went 6-1 in the regular season and helped Fryfogle become the Big Ten's top receiver.
But this year, they've both struggled out of the gate. Penix, quite uncharacteristically, has been throwing interceptions. He's had two three-interception games already in the two losses to Iowa and Cincinnati, teams both ranked in the top-eight in the country,
Fryfogle has been dropping balls, and easily catchable balls at that. He had three drops against Cincinnati, all right in his hands.
But the friendship is unwavering, of course. So is the faith in each other. Despite the drops, Penix knows he can always trust Fryfogle when he needs to make a big throw. He trusted big-time in Saturday night's 33-31 win at Western Kentucky.
"That's my guy. That's somebody I'm with every day and it would take a lot for him to make me mad,'' Penix said after completing a career-high 35 passes on Saturday night, including 10 to Fryfogle. "He's a great player. Everybody has their good games, and I thought today was one of his best games. He definitely went out there and prepared all week for it. We knew what to expect from him.
"I'm always going to continue to trust him and love him. That's my brother. He's a dude, and I'm going to get him the ball whenever he's open.''
Fryfogle was open a lot against the Hilltoppers. He was targeting 17 times and had 10 catches for 98 yards. Penix targeted Fryfogle seven times on third down, and completed five passes to him that helped move the chains.
There were some big throws, too, for 10, 17, 6, 10 and 10 yards. The pair was a good reason why the Hoosiers scored on seven of their nine drives, and had seven drives of eight plays or more.
The Hoosiers had at least one first down on every drive, and Nick Sheridan's offense generated 506 yards of offense. Penix threw for 373 yards, the second-biggest total of his career, second only to the Ohio State last year when he threw for 491 yards, including 218 to Fryfogle.
"We had a lot of confidence with the game plan and I feel like everybody was good with their preparation and stayed focused,'' Penix said. "We just went out there and executed the plays that Coach (Sheridan) called. I made sure I took care of the ball, and make the correct throws and the correct reads.
"Just knowing the offense and understanding everything, I think that's why we executed at a high level. His preparation all week was really good, and I figured he would have a big night.''
Indiana never trailed in the game, but Western Kentucky was having its way with Indiana's defense too, and kept it close. That meant Penix had to keep making plays, and he kept finding Fryfogle down the stretch.
Tight end Peyton Hendershot was big, too. He had seven catches for 100 yards, a statistical fix from Saturday night where he was credited with another catch that was inadvertently assigned to A.J. Barner. Hendershot passed the 100-catch mark for his career.
He gave Indiana coach Tom Allen a huge hug after the game, thrilled with the result that was desperately needed to close out September after the two tough losses.
"There's so much that goes into a win in college football. I don't even know how to explain it,'' an emotional Hendershot said after the game. "All the hard work and execution coming together, I just wanted to celebrate with my coach.''
He celebrated with Penix, too. Both are captains this year, and he's seen the struggles that Penix has gone through, both physically and mentally, the past few years through all the injuries.
"Mike, he's just a different kind of player. It's amazing how calm he always is,'' Hendershot said. "He practiced good all week, and I could tell before the game that it was going to be a great game. We were throwing, and he was throwing some crazy balls to me and it got both of us going.
"We all talked all week about having more dog in us. Mike's a dog, man. He really is. He's tough, and he's a great quarterback.''
Allen has seen all the sweat and tears that Penix has had to put into multiple rehabs during his years in Bloomington. To see him have a record night meant a lot to him, too, because he's also seen the criticism of his quarterback these first few weeks.
"I'm so proud of this team, and our offense. I though Michael Penix was phenomenal,'' Allen said. "He just commanded the offense, and he was so accurate and made good decisions.
"I've never wavered in my belief in him, and I hope the whole country saw why tonight. We all saw tonight who he is, and who we expected him to be from the beginning. We had a lot of huge third-down conversions. Just proud of our guys. It's been a tough week. These wins are hard, and we're going to enjoy this one.''
For the skeptics out there — and there are many — they have a hard time taking much from a two-point win over a team like Western Kentucky, but a win is a win is a win.
What can be gleaned from it is that Penix had another week to get more comfortable after his second ACL injury. He was calm and confident all night on Saturday, and it showed. He threw 52 passes, with zero interceptions. That has to help going forward, starting with a trip to Penn State on Saturday night. The Nittany Lions are now 4-0, and ranked No. 4 in the country.
A lot of people have jumped off of Indiana's bandwagon, and they've lost faith in Penix and the Indiana offense.
That might be a little premature. Penix made another big stride on Saturday night, and so did Fryfogle. He made good decisions, made good throws, made very few mistakes. And Fryfogle was there whenever he needed him.
Maybe it's the start of another nice run.
Related stories on Indiana football
- INDIANA BEATS WESTERN KENTUCKY: Indiana rolls up 507 yards of offense and gets record nights from Michael Penix Jr. and kicker Charles Campbell in a 33-31 win over Western Kentucky CLICK HERE
- LIVE BLOG: Relive all the moments from Indiana's win on Saturday night, with news and views in real time. CLICK HERE