MIAMI — Tom Allen didn’t have an exact plan for how Indiana would utilize its two quarterbacks in its season-opening 38-28 win against Florida International.
He knew his options, their tendencies, and the fact that he wanted both to play. But he didn’t know when, or how.
“Here’s the thing,” Allen said postgame. “We didn’t have an exact plan and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna play Michael Penix on this series.’ We just said, ‘Hey, let’s see how the game goes.’
Allen started sophomore Peyton Ramsey because he was the starter. He still is the starter, of course. Ramsey shrugged off an interception on IU’s opening possession to complete 20 of his 27 passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns. His biggest strengths are his accuracy and efficiency, and Ramsey displayed just that. He found wideout Donavan Hale twice in the redzone, once on 4th down to hand Indiana a 28-14 halftime lead. Ramsey also scampered for 48 yards on eight carries in a performance that at the very least, met expectations.
“I thought Peyton controlled the game,” Allen said. “Other than that one pick where he made a bad decision there — but that one didn’t cost us anything. Three touchdown passes for him, just thought he looked really sharp.
True freshman Michael Penix Jr. replaced Ramsey on the second drive of the third quarter after Ramsey’s series resulted in a punt. Penix was an immediate spark, marching the Hoosiers down the field for an eventual 9-yard touchdown to running back Mike Majette on an outside screen. He stayed in for another series, finding a 34-yard completion down the sideline to Hale that led to Logan Justus’ first career field goal (36 yards). Penix’s biggest strengths are his arm strength and poise, and both were showcased. He aired out a long ball to Whop Philyor on his first possession, drawing a pass interference penalty with an accurate throw. He converted on a big 3rd and seven by finding Luke Timian over the middle.
“Michael came in as a true freshman back in his home state,” Allen said. “That’s gotta be a lot of nervous energy for him for that. But he was calm and cool. He read the defenses and (was) just sitting there watching our offense make calls and watching him run the offense and make good decisions.
The Hoosiers weren’t comfortable using Penix in the first half, but they wanted to play him Saturday night. So Allen chose the third quarter as the ideal time as Indiana had a two-score lead when Penix entered.
After FIU answered the Justus field goal with a touchdown to cut IU’s lead to 38-28, Allen went back to his starter. Ramsey entered with six minutes remaining in the game to close it out. He did just that, taking every second off the clock and securing Indiana a road win to start 2018.
“Then we say, ‘Hey, know what? Let’s make sure we finish,” Allen said. “We gotta manage the clock. Obviously, Mike is a true freshman. I don’t want to put that on his plate yet. He still needs to learn some things. So let’s get Peyton back in there and go win the game.”
Playing two quarterbacks is a delicate strategy. If not kicker, quarterback is certainly the most fragile in terms of confidence and momentum. A year ago, Indiana’s back-and-forth strategy with Ramsey and Richard Lagow didn’t establish fluidity — albeit injuries played a major role in that. But this season, Allen is high enough on Penix to endure the delicacy. It was not surprising that both played — that was the plan all along.
“We got two really good quarterbacks, I believe,” Allen said. “I just think that we’ve got to be able to manage those two and decide which situation is best. But the bottom line is Peyton is the starter and Michael is a great No. 2 quarterback … You have to have more than one guy. We’ll see how the future — what it holds for us.”
It is likely that Indiana will play a third quarterback this season as well. True freshman and reigning Mr. Football Reese Taylor did not see a snap at quarterback against FIU after moving back there following Brandon Dawkins’ departure. But Allen said postgame that he will be a factor there. Taylor rushed for 40 yards, caught two passes, and played cornerback Saturday. Seeing him at quarterback in the near future wouldn’t be a shock.
Allen’s ability to manage his quarterbacks will be a vital part of how successful 2018 is for Indiana. There are more winnable games on this schedule than in 2017. But there is significantly more youth on this roster than last season. The Hoosiers played multiple true freshmen in Miami — from Penix and Taylor, to tight end Matt Bjorson, to running back Stevie Scott, cornerback Jaylin Williams, and husky Cam Jones. There were miscues, especially on defense, but most passed their first collegiate test. The tests get harder, starting next week vs. Virginia.
“Lot of question marks going into tonight’s game,” Allen said. “I was so nervous. I don’t know if I’ve been this nervous for a game in a long time, just because there were so many unknowns on our team. Just great to get the win. It’s going to be a really enjoyable plane ride home.”