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‘You have to trust him:’ Michael Penix saw a little bit of everything in his first collegiate start

INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Allen and Michael Penix exchanged a smile.

Indiana got the best of Ball State in Indianapolis, pulling out a 34-24 win over the Cardinals to open the 2019 season. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Allen’s redshirt freshman quarterback wasn’t fazed. His head was up. He had already thrown a 75-yard touchdown pass to Nick Westbrook and had completed six of his first eight passes for 132 yards.

But he had just thrown an interception as he smiled at his head coach — his second one in as many drives. There was no pep talk, nothing Allen needed to do to instill confidence in his quarterback.

Penix just smiled. A smile that showed poise beyond his years.

Allen trusted his starter by remaining aggressive, choosing to go for points after getting the ball on his own 10-yard line and 1:11 remaining in the first half. His starter showed poise driving 59 yards in 1:10, leading to a 49-yard field goal.

Allen’s word for the week was “prove.” IU proved Saturday it has a long way to go. But behind the poise of Penix, IU never trailed in the season opener against Ball State, resulting in a 34-24 win at Lucas Oil Stadium.

There was the Jekyll and Hyde a young starting quarterback is bound to find. With screen passes on his first drive, offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer helped to build Penix’s confidence. It was confidence that led to a picture-perfect 75-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Westbrook.

With 326 passing yards, Penix became the first IU freshman since Antwaan Randle-El to throw for over 300 yards in his first start. And without Westbrook and Whop Philyor dropping would-be long touchdown passes, he could have had more. Penix added a team-leading 67 yards on the ground, adding a spark to a running game failing to gain traction early in the game. He averaged 9.6 yards per rush, putting his body on the line for the first time since his ACL injury.

“It felt great to feel that,” Penix said of getting hit. “Now I know, just keep playing.”

Many of his rushes came on third down, keeping multiple different drives afloat. His legs picked up some slack from starting running back Stevie Scott who, despite scoring two touchdowns, had just 48 rushing yards, averaging 2.5 yards per carry.

“He made something out of nothing a few times,” Allen said. “You see his legs and how valuable those can be, and the zip on the football. It’s elite.”

And there was the bad.

Penix came back after the touchdown and threw an interception, appearing to not see a Ball State defensive back. On his third time dropping back to pass after the interception, Penix threw behind Ty Fryfogle, getting picked off for the second straight drive.

“Just mental errors, getting through my reads,” Penix said. “I just flushed it. 1-0 mindset, kept pushing. The team kept me up.”

Penix completed 24 of 40 passes. Screen passes in the fourth quarter helped improve his percentage to 60% after having inconsistent accuracy for the first three. His experienced receivers, whom DeBoer said Monday would help Penix get comfortable, dropped two different would-be touchdown passes. With every ball that hit an IU receiver in the chest, there was a pass sailing out of reach.

Allen knew that was what he would get. There were the moments when Penix showed the best of his abilities, proving why he won the starting job. Those were juxtaposed with the moments when he reminded his coaches he’s just a redshirt freshmen.

“I thought he had a lot of poise,” Allen said. “He missed some reads, missed some things that we’re trying to work. That didn’t surprise me. You’re going to have some growing pains. He’s never been a starter before in college.”

Poor tackling and inconsistent secondary play kept Ball State in the game, facing a one-possession deficit with just over six minutes to play. A Logan Justus 50-yard field goal, which set a new career long for the third time in the game, sealed the game putting IU up 10 with two minutes to play.

“I told him, ‘I love you,'” Penix said of his kicker. “I said ‘I love you man. I appreciate you putting points on the field.'”

IU starts the season 1-0 for the 14th time in the last 16 years. It has now won seven straight non-conference games and 15 of the past 16. IU also improved to 7-3 all-time against Ball State.

The Hoosiers return to Bloomington next week to host FCS opponent Eastern Illinois in the home opener.

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