Michael Penix has only played in two and a half games this season. Yet he enters Saturday’s Homecoming game against Rutgers just 191 yards short of 1,000 for the season. He eclipsed 1,000 career passing yards in the loss to Michigan State and he’s been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice. This week, he was ranked as one of the top 16 quarterbacks in the nation by Pro Football Focus.
For his coaches, the early accolades are a result of the way he pushes himself and responds to adversity in practice.
“It takes a confident young man to approach it that way,” IU head coach Tom Allen said. “There’s a fine line between challenging him in practice and developing confidence, especially a young guy. But it just shows you his core confidence is at a high level. He’s able to have those challenging situations, maybe not execute them the right way in practice, but it makes it easier in the game.”
Though five weeks, Penix has proven Allen and the coaches right, and he’s quickly developed a relationship with offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer. DeBoer hasn’t been shy to challenge him. Sure, he’s just a redshirt freshman learning a new offensive system, but he’s stepped in quickly.
“He puts me in a bad situation in practice just to see what I’m going to do, see if I’m ready for the reads,” Penix said.
And he has been ready, he’s proven it on Saturdays. After putting up big numbers in the first two weeks against Ball State and Eastern Illinois, Penix proved he was capable of performing against a top-tier Big Ten defense as he threw for over 300 yards against Michigan State, or at least before he was credited with a loss on the game’s final play which resulted in a Michigan State touchdown.
He’s been put in these situations in practice all while working back from an injury, both this season and following his ACL tear. He’s spent so much time watching and learning from the sideline during practice and on the field.
Allen sees the time he’s spent learning and in tough situations in practice paying off. He sees it lead to the level of play Penix has produced on the field. In fact, Allen thinks he’s been better on the field that he’s been in practice.
“I think there’s no questions that that’s helped him grow faster,” Allen said. “The core confidence that he has and his ability to have poise and to compete and execute at a high level even during a game, more so than even during a tough situation in
The strength of opponent for Penix to face takes a step back this week. Sure, he focused on treating this game any other, but the pressured situations he sees in practice may be more difficult than what he gets in the actual game itself.
He’s behind an offensive line that has been strong in pass protecting even without Coy Cronk. He may even be buoyed by a running game that has a chance to finally break out against a Rutgers defense that allows nearly 200 yards per game.
While Rutgers’ defense has only allowed 229.8 passing yards per game, it hasn’t yet faced a quarterback with the talent or versatility of Penix. Even a struggling Michigan passing offense had no trouble moving the ball through the air.
Rutgers is the first opponent in one of the weakest four-game conference stretches IU has had in years. Penix has only been back from injury for one game, and in that game he set the school record for consecutive completions.
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The upcoming four-game stretch gives Penix a chance to rack up his stats, and if the rate he has keeps up, he’ll continue his rise up the tiers of quarterbacks in the country.
IU has found its quarterback, and it’s still just the beginning for him.