BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The first time Indiana fans saw the potential of Michael Penix Jr. came in a game his freshman season against Penn State.
Indiana was seven games into the season with a record of 4-3. They would use both Peyton Ramsey and Penix to run the offense with Ramsey getting a majority of the snaps.
But against Penn State, ranked No. 18 at the time, Penix's ability to run and pass really stood out in Memorial Stadium.
Jon Sauber, who worked for Indiana Rivals in 2018, remembers just how effective Penix was in the early stages of that game.
"I remember him changing the game for Indiana and making life really difficult for Penn State," Sauber said. "Indiana was the better team with Michael Penix in the game."
Penix strung together a number of solid drives for the Hoosiers. He went 9-19 for 94 yards passing and had two carries for 24 yards.
He did it all in less than a full quarter as well. Toward the end of the first half, Indiana trailing 17-14, Penix went down with an injury that turned out to be a torn ACL, causing him to miss the rest of that season.
The Hoosiers went to lose to the Nittany Lions 33-28.
"I honestly think they are probably winning if he doesn't get hurt in that game," Sauber said.
Fast forward to the spring of 2019, and Sauber saw a fully recovered Penix during spring practices and said he looked fresh.
Heading into the 2019 season, Penix would go on to beat out Ramsey for the starting position. By this time, Sauber had moved back to his alma mater to work for the Centre Daily Times and was covering Penn State football.
Penix was off to a great start last season, but by the time the Hoosiers took a trip to State College, Penix was done for the year with a season-ending injury in his right sternoclavicular joint.
The Hoosiers were 7-2 when they played the No. 9 Nittany Lions. Indiana lost a tight game 34-27, and it once again left fans wondering what if Penix had played?
"Penn State struggled a lot with running quarterbacks. Peyton Ramsey hurt them a lot with his legs last season and Penix is even more athletic than him," Sauber said. "We saw Ramsey gash them so much; it's not hard to imagine Penix doing much of the same."
Sauber added the strong arm of Penix would've hurt the Nittany Lions as well. He said their defense was susceptible to long balls, so Penix's ability to throw the ball down the field could've played a major role in that game.
Now, the two teams are going to open the 2020 season against one another. Penn State is ranked No. 8 in the country. Indiana is returning a majority of its roster from a team that collected the most wins for the program in 26 years a season ago.
Earlier this week, Penn State head coach James Franklin said this was the best Indiana team they are going to face by far. Sauber agreed it's a really good Hoosier team, but he also believes this is the best Nittany Lion roster since 2017.
It makes for an intriguing matchup between the two Big Ten East foes.
Penix is fully healthy heading into the game, and this is his chance to show what he's made of against one of the Big Ten's top dogs for a full 60 minutes.
Sauber believes the key to Penn State containing Penix is their defensive line. He said the pass rush for the Nittany Lions should be good this season, and if they can get pressure on Penix and give him less time to throw the deep ball, it should help keep the Indiana offense at bay.
But then there's Penix's ability to escape the pocket and make plays.
"He is always looking to throw first from what I've seen," Sauber said. "He keeps his eyes down field when he gets out of the pocket."
Sauber didn't have to be around Indiana football long to understand what the program has gone through in its history, always coming up short in games like these.
But he's seen them stay on this upward trajectory the past few seasons, and he believes they are just one big win away from taking that next step. Saturday could be that win with a healthy Penix against a very good Penn State team.
"I think there is a chance Penix is the difference on Saturday and Indiana gets over the hump," he said.
- HOW TO WATCH: Here's all the game time and TV information that you need for Indiana's game with Penn State on Saturday. CLICK HERE
- CAN INDIANA BEAT PENN STATE: SI's Tom Brew offers his two cents on if the Hoosiers can actually top the No. 8-ranked Nittany Lions. CLICK HERE
- FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT PENN STATE: SI's Tom Brew and Mark Wogenrich go over five questions before Penn State takes on Indiana Saturday. CLICK HERE
- MICHAEL PENIX OR SEAN CLIFFORD?: SI's Tom Brew and Mark Wogenrich preview the quarterback battle for Indiana-Penn State. CLICK HERE