With the emergence of senior Ty Fryfogle, there are now two Biletnikoff Award watch-listers in Indiana’s receiving corps.
But IU receivers coach Grant Heard knows one man deserves much of the credit for Fryfogle and Whop Philyor’s success.
“I will say Mike (Penix) is playing at a high level, and he’s getting the ball to us fast and early,” Heard said. “It’s helping us. And just as a group, we are playing with so much confidence right now, which is a big part of who we are.”
The redshirt sophomore quarterback, a player who showed so much tantalizing potential in an injury-shortened 2019 campaign, comes into Saturday’s matchup at No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) having thrown 300-plus yards in back-to-back games. He’s making throws not a lot of quarterbacks can make, either dropping balls into tight windows over the middle, or roping them to sidelines from either hash.
That success leads the No. 9 Hoosiers (4-0) into one of the biggest games in program history, with a matchup within a matchup. Penix will command one offense, while Justin Fields, the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year, will command the other.
“It’s going to be a great matchup. It’s something people want to see,” Penix said.
Penix and Fields were members of the same recruiting class in 2018, so they met once at a camp during the recruiting process. But the former Georgia recruit, who transferred to the Buckeyes, has yet to face the former Tennessee commit, who ended up at IU.
Penix was sidelined for OSU last year, just as he was for Penn State and Michigan, two perennial powers he’s already knocked off in 2020.
“Both teams have great quarterbacks. I’ve already said how I feel about Justin Fields, he’s really special,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “And I think we’ve got a great one too. He isn’t as experienced as Justin Fields, hasn’t played as much football as he has, but has shown that he has an elite skillset.
“I really think that (Penix’s) decision-making is one of his greatest strengths and all the natural parts of that flows from there, in terms of quick release and arm strength.”
The susceptibility of each team’s quarterback to the other team’s pass rush may have a large say in the outcome. While the status of IU left tackle Caleb Jones and left guard Mike Katic isn’t clear for the OSU game, Penix has shown an ability to get the ball out before the rush arrives. Fields, who has been incredibly efficient, completing 86.7 percent of his passes, also has an incredible knack for escaping the pocket.
IU’s defense has had struggles, at times, containing scrambling quarterbacks. So that part is a concern.
“His eye progression is good. He sees coverage and he can recognize things and anticipate and work through his progression offensively,” IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “But at the same time, I think he has elite pocket awareness, and his ability to feel the pocket, escape at times, or just extend plays longer, makes him a very special quarterback.
“That’s something we have to do a great job of finding a way to affect him.”
IU will want to limit Fields’ ability to get the ball to receivers like Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. At the same time, the Hoosiers will want to keep things rolling between Penix and receivers like Fryfogle and Philyor.
Fryfogle, in particular, has 342 yards in his last two games, including a 200-yard performance at Michigan State to put him on the Biletnikoff list this past week. He’s frequently been found in tight spaces by the sideline, including an impressive back-shoulder throw from Penix on Fryfogle’s 65-yard score at Spartan Stadium.
“If the ball’s on the hash, the defense knows there are not a lot of quarterbacks that can throw it to the wide side of the field and throw it with good velocity. Mike can, so they have to respect it,” Heard said. “We don’t have to always bring our routes always angling to him. We can run away from him, we can run it deep, and he can make a throw.
“As the passing game has developed, we don’t have to worry about it as much as ‘Can Mike make that throw?’ There is not a throw we don’t think Mike can make.”
Now it’s just a question of whether Penix can make more throws than Fields in the big game.
Of course, Allen believes Penix can.
“First chance playing against Ohio State since he’s been here,” Allen said. “I’m excited to see how this game, this environment, this opportunity, pulls even more greatness out of him.”
1. The battle of QBs.
IU is now 9-1 when Michael Penix Jr. starts a game. Justin Fields has won all of his regular season games as a starter for Ohio State. Now it’s time for two of the top QB prospects in the 2018 class to match up on the field for the first time. Both can be deadly accurate with the football, and Fields is completing a league-best 86.7 percent of his passes. He’s also a capable scrambler, so it’s going to be a chore for IU’s defense to pressure him and knock him out of a rhythm. On the other side, Penix has amassed 300-plus passing yards in two straight games. Can he keep it going and outduel the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year?
2. War in the trenches.
OSU doesn’t have a pass-rusher as frightful as Chase Young this year, but that doesn’t mean the Buckeyes lack premium talent on the edge. In fact, they bring a steady wave of talented rushers, including sophomores Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste. Junior defensive tackle Tommy Tagiai has three sacks on the interior. With the status of left tackle Caleb Jones and left guard Mike Katic unknown, will IU be able to withstand whatever pass rush the Buckeyes bring, especially going into the fourth quarter, when OSU’s rotation should have them especially fresh? Penix has to be on his feet to do damage.
3. Manning up the Buckeyes.
Field is so good because he has an excellent receiving corps to throw to. Sophomore Garrett Wilson appears to be in the middle of a breakout campaign, leading the way with 24 catches for 344 yards. Chris Olave, a 6-1 junior, may have the most NFL hype behind him, and he burned the Hoosiers a couple of times in 2019. He has 288 yards thus far in 2020. One of IU’s greatest strengths appears to be its secondary, which has forced a Big Ten-best 10 interceptions. They’ve been aided by IU’s pressures, but the secondary’s ability to cover just long enough has allowed more blitzes to get home. Can they keep that trend going? Whatever happens may tip the balance.
4. Dare to believe.
Most of the college football world didn’t think IU would beat Penn State to start the year. A win over Michigan was considered unlikely, too. But now the Hoosiers are the No. 9 team in the country, facing No. 3 Ohio State, with a chance to beat all three of the Big Ten East’s perennial powers in one season. IU has obviously believed in itself to this point. Will the power of that belief, and the Hoosiers’ talent on the field, be enough to overcome an OSU program IU hasn’t beaten since 1988? Stay tuned.
By the numbers
O: Prior OSU-IU games where both teams where in the top 10 in the polls. Only twice have both teams been ranked, at all, prior to a meeting.
5: Straight Big Ten games won by the Hoosiers, which ties a program record (1967).
19: Consecutive regular season wins for the Buckeyes. That’s the country’s longest streak.
22: Consecutive home games OSU has won. It’s the third-longest streak nationally.
24: OSU’s consecutive wins over IU.