BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – For months and months on end, the first question to Michael Penix Jr. has always been the same.
"How's the knee doing?''
Indiana's talented quarterback tore his ACL in the Maryland game last November, and had surgery soon thereafter. It was the third straight year that his season ended prematurely because of injury.
This surgery went well, and the plan all along was to be 100 percent by Saturday's opener at Iowa. It was, at the very least, the goal.
All winter, all spring and all summer, the question was the same. And even through fall camp, it persisted.
"How's the knee doing?''
Penix, to be quite honest, is tired of it. He's been a full participant in fall camp and he's impressed everyone all August long. He's good to go, even if you don't want to believe it.
The doubters, of course, will point to the fact that he hasn't been able to finish any of his first three seasons at Indiana. Penix, the hard-throwing left-hander from Tampa, Fla., won't hear any of that, though. He's in the best shape of his life, he says, and the knee feels great. He's done everything asked of him, and he's going to play all out on Saturday in Iowa City, even if that means taking off and running for a first down.
"I've been playing football since I was five years old, and I only know one way to play,'' Penix said during the "Mike & Micah'' podcast on Sports Illustrated Indiana along with teammate Micah McFadden. "I'm ready to play, and I think WE are ready to play, too. We've gotten a lot of great work done and I'm really looking forward to getting back on the field and showing people what we can do.''
The Hoosiers are ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press preseason poll, their first time in the inaugural rankings since 1969. The Hawkeyes – who went 6-2 last year just like Indiana – are ranked No. 18 and are slight favorites heading into the game.
That means nothing to Penix. The injury talk, it can all go away. He's ready to ball. He's been ahead of schedule at every step through his recovery, and he is definitely game-ready now.
“I’m 100% confident I’m going to have a great season this year and I’m not going to worry about injuries,” he said Monday. “It’s just go out and play football.”
Penix, considered the best quarterback in the Big Ten this season despite his limited game experience because of the injuries, has accomplished everything he wanted to during fall camp. He said Tuesday night that he feels good about his timing with his receivers, even newcomers D.J. Matthews (Florida State) and Camron Buckley (Texas A&M). And Allen has been thrilled with all the work that Penix has put in.
He has full faith in his quarterback.
“He’s doing more than he’s ever done in regards to every time we had a special teams period or a different type of period,” coach Tom Allen said. “He he was always with the training staff doing extra work, with our weight room staff as well as our medical guys, just doing rehab and strengthening and conditioning and just doing extra things. He did that all fall camp. He even he did it last week.”
Indiana offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said he was convinced that Penix was ready to go after the Hoosiers' first scrimmage on Aug. 14. Penix made all the throws, and took off running when he had to, though Penix has joked that Allen ''has a very quick whistle'' when he takes off running.
“Mike’s looked great,” Sheridan said. “I think you've seen him knock some of the rust off just getting back to playing again. He hasn't been perfect, but from a physical standpoint, you see the same Mike Penix that we’ve seen here.”
That's all we need to hear, really. He's got a rocket for an arm, and he's got a great mind for the position. He knows Indiana's offense like the back of his hand, and Sheridan said earlier this week that Penix has a lot of input into the game plan, sharing the plays that he likes best.
Penix talked with a lot of confidence on Tuesday about how good this offense can be. He has a ton of weapons on the outside, led by 2020 Big Ten Receiver of the Year Ty Fryfogle, and tight end Peyton Hendershot is healthy again, and primed for a huge year. He likes his offensive line, and with USC transfer Stephen Carr earning the starting spot at running back, he's expecting the running game to be much better this year too, which should take some pressure off of him to not have to throw it around on every down.
The naysayers are still out there, of course. Indiana has gone 14-5 in the regular season the past two years, but lots of people still aren't taking the Hoosiers seriously. Penix and his crew think that's a mistake, that this team is for real and will continue to get better.
Even in the opener, Iowa is favored, with the point spread at 3.5 points according to FanDuel.com. That doesn't mean anything to Penix either.
"I think we've had a great fall camp, as far as getting comfortable on offense and being able to move the ball against anybody,'' Penix said. "Our own defense, they're really good, and when we got ones against the ones all out, it's a battle. But that's gotten us ready, and we're good to go.''
Quarterbacks are always the center of attention in big games, and this one is no different in this big season opener between two ranked teams. Everyone is curious to see how good Penix looks, and Iowa's Spencer Petras is a second-year starter now who did some good things later in his first season. The Hawkeyes, like the Hoosiers, both went 6-2 last year, and both are expecting big things from their respective quarterbacks in 2021.
Penix is going to be very good. You should believe him. Or risking looking foolish when it's all said and done.
Related stories on Indiana-Iowa
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- THOMAS ALLEN FINISHING IN STYLE: Indiana linebacker Thomas Allen suffered a serious hip injury last fall and had to decide if it was worth months of rehab to play one more season. He's coming back for the 2021 season because he wants to end his career on a high note. CLICK HERE