Michael Penix is taking steps in the right direction.
Or at least if not steps, throws.
After two weeks in which Penix didn’t throw a ball, walking out on the field to stretch and nothing more, standing besides Peyton Ramsey and Jack Tuttle as they warmed up for the game, he returned to the practice field. The only public throw Penix has made over the last three weeks? A short underhand toss of the ball he used while stretching ahead of IU’s win over UConn.
This week, Penix and Ramsey have had equal reps in practice.
“It’s been building for sure,” IU head coach Tom Allen said, “it’s been progressing.”
Penix’s health isn’t crystal clear. He’ll be a game-time decision yet again this weekend. But against Michigan State, the opportunity for Penix to play appears much more realistic than the two weeks prior.
In fact, that exact question has created ambiguity for Michigan State this weekend.
“I think you’ve got to take both (quarterbacks) into consideration,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said Monday. “I know Penix is coming off an injury and he hasn’t played and maybe it’s a shoulder injury or an arm injury. So got to take that into consideration with everything.”
Heading into the first true road game of the season, Penix has just two career starts. He’s only played in five games as a collegiate quarterback. Michigan State only has so much film to build a game plan off of, and even then, Allen has created a shroud of uncertainty that leaves both IU and opponents unsure.
But it’s Penix’s skill set that gives IU an opportunity in East Lansing.
“Penix is a very athletic guy,” Dantonio said. “We haven’t experienced him as much, so we don’t really know, but we’ve seen him play and make plays, and he can take off with it.”
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IU is facing one of the nation’s top defenses, and doing so without left tackle Coy Cronk after he undergoes season-ending surgery in Indianapolis on Friday. Michigan State allows just 52.2 rushing yards per game. For an IU rushing attack that has struggled throughout 2019, and now doesn’t have Cronk, running the ball will be a daunting task.
Redshirt sophomore Caleb Jones is slated to start at left tackle on the depth chart with fifth-year DaVondre Love at right tackle. True freshman Matthew Bedford will see a big role as well, though it may not come as a starter just yet. IU had originally planned to redshirt Bedford as IU groomed him as Cronk’s replacement. Now Allen doesn’t have a choice but to use the Tennessee native.
No matter who takes the left tackle spot, it will be their first career start at the position.
“Whoever’s in there is going to be a guy that’s going to have to be learning on the run in some ways in a very tough environment,” Allen said.
And that’s why Penix is so crucial, even with his inexperience. Penix’s only true road game is against FIU, the first game of his college career.
Penix’s arm strength allows him to stretch the field. That would force Michigan State’s defense to spread out, as opposed to the shorter passes of a Ramsey-led offense where Michigan State can bring up safeties for both the run and the pass.
Normally, teams try to establish the run. IU needs to establish the pass.
For IU to win the Old Brass Spittoon for the fourth time this century, everything has to go right. IU is on the road, without the long-tenured left tackle and potentially without the starting quarterback. No week has seen a bigger question at quarterback with Penix so close to returning.
Maybe this will be the opportunity to see what the real 2019 IU team truly is.