Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is practically bursting with excitement.
He still trusts his strong arm, still makes nifty runs and, yes, remains completely confident his surgically-repaired right knee will hold up when he starts taking hits. Now comes the hard part.
Penix makes his third straight opening-day start Saturday, this time leading the 17th-ranked Hoosiers into a game at No. 18 Iowa in one of the most highly-anticipated season openers in school history.
“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.”
Teammates and coaches couldn’t ask for anything more because they know when Penix plays free, the Hoosiers are at their best. All the 6-foot3, 218-pound junior has done in his first three seasons is deliver one of college football’s top turnarounds.
When Penix arrived as a highly-touted recruit out of Florida in 2018, Indiana had the longest Top 25 drought among power-conference schools, had been to three bowl games in 25 years, hadn’t produced a postseason win since 1991 and hadn’t contended for a Big Ten crown in decades.
Penix’s penchant for making big plays helped change everything.
He played in three games as a true freshman, all in backup duty, before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He helped make the Hoosiers bowl-eligible in 2019 by completing 68.8% of his throws for 1,394 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. The Hoosiers were 7-2 when doctors told Penix he needed season-ending surgery on his throwing shoulder.
While Penix’s numbers dropped slightly last season, a stronger supporting cast allowed him to take Indiana on a seemingly implausible run after Big Ten presidents reversed course on canceling the season.
Behind Penix, Indiana posted its best record in 54 years, made its first top-10 ranking since 1969 and a brilliant second-half at No. 3 Ohio State had the Hoosiers on the brink of an upset. Then Penix tore the ACL in his right knee on Nov. 28, setting up another grueling offseason of rehab.
Instead of fretting, Penix went to work and came back. He found his voice, on and off the field, and after being elected captain, Penix wants to deliver the kind of season Hoosiers fans haven’t seen in generations.
The coaches believe in him.
“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.”
The only question might be whether Penix can help Indiana end Ohio State’s four-year reign as conference champs.
Before hosting the Buckeyes on Oct. 23, the Hoosiers face three daunting matchups — Saturday at Iowa, Oct. 4 at Penn State and Oct. 16 when Michigan State visits Bloomington in the Old Brass Spittoon game. Slipping in any of the three could force Indiana to change its goals and the odds, as usual, don’t look good.
The Hoosiers are 2-7 in Iowa City since 1999, 0-11 on the Nittany Lions’ home turf and haven’t won three straight over the Spartans since 1967-69.
But with Penix healthy, Indiana knows what it can do.
“Mike’s looked great,” offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said. “I think just knocking some of the rust off, just getting back to playing, not to say Mike’s been perfect, but from a physical standpoint, you see the same Mike Penix that we’ve seen here.”
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