During his first three seasons at Indiana, which consisted of 15 appearances, Michael Penix Jr. tossed a total of eight interceptions.
In just three games this season, Penix Jr. has nearly matched that figure with six. He threw three inceptions in one game for the first time in his career against Iowa. Then he did it again in Indiana’s loss to Cincinnati on Saturday, one of which was in the red zone, part of the Hoosiers’ overall inability to capitalize on a variety of opportunities.
After Saturday’s game, an IU spokesperson said that Penix Jr. was undergoing X-rays, but no further details were given. On Monday, Indiana head coach Tom Allen said that tests on Penix Jr.’s non-throwing hand came back negative.
There were already concerns entering this season about Penix Jr.’s ability to bounce back from last year’s ACL injury, his third consecutive season-ending injury. Through three games, that apprehension has become more pressing and criticism has come from all directions about whether Penix Jr. should remain the quarterback at Indiana.
But on Monday, Allen’s trust in Penix Jr. was unwavering, saying that he will start on Saturday against Western Kentucky.
“Michael Penix is our starting quarterback and I believe in him with 100 percent of my heart,” Allen said. “And know that our team feels the same way.”
It wasn’t all bad on Saturday for Penix Jr. Solely from a yardage standpoint, Penix Jr. had his best game of the season, throwing for 224 yards and outgaining the combined total from his first two games.
There were certainly moments, albeit not consistent, when Penix Jr. looked more comfortable. In the first quarter, he flashed his ability to make throws on the run when he hit tight end, Peyton Hendershot, for a 16-yard touchdown. While on the move again in the second quarter, Penix Jr. lofted a touch pass to running back Stephen Carr for a five-yard touchdown.
Penix Jr. also connected on a few deeper passes, notably to DJ Matthews, an element of the quarterback’s game that had been lacking the first two weeks.
“He made some really good plays, made some really good throws that not many guys could make,” Allen said. “…He’s showing growth and progress in that and confidence in his knee.”
Ultimately, though, Penix Jr.’s mistakes outweighed his incremental progress. It remains that Penix Jr. was quick to make decisions when he was under pressure and didn’t appear fully composed, which, more often than not, led to interceptions or incompletions.
One of those came midway through the second quarter when Indiana had the ball on the Cincinnati eight-yard line. The pocket was collapsing around Penix Jr. and, throwing off his back foot while slightly off-balance, he tossed an interception. Similarly, later that quarter, Penix Jr. was starting to be dragged down by a Cincinnati defender when, instead of taking the sack, he almost blindly launched a ball to the middle of the field and was picked off again.
The last mistake came with less than four minutes left in the game and Indiana down by six points. Penix Jr., rolling to his left, threw the ball across his body, something that quarterbacks are taught not to do, leading to an easy interception.
“You turn the ball over that many times against a top-10 team, you’re not going to win,” Allen said. “We did some good things but we didn’t finish. He’s (Penix Jr.) part of that. He’s got to finish, as well, and that’s going to be the focus is consistent performance.”
There were other factors that contributed to Penix Jr.’s struggles. Indiana’s offense line took steps forward but was still largely inconsistent. The run game, which showed promise in the first half, slowed down significantly in the second half. Indiana’s All-Big Ten receiver, Ty Fryfogle, finished with just one catch and an uncharacteristic three drops.
“He practices well, he practices hard,” Allen said of Fryfogle. “To me, that just was a hiccup for him because that’s not him.”
Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky will give Penix Jr. yet another opportunity to get into a rhythm, but it will be intriguing to see how long Allen continues to stick with his quarterback should his struggles continue.
While not established at the college level, the options behind Penix Jr. are not incapable of producing. Penix Jr.’s backup, Jack Tuttle, a former blue-chip recruit, has long been regarded as someone with the tools to be successful, although he hasn’t proven to do so. Behind him is freshman Donaven McCulley, a dual-threat quarterback that the coaching staff has spoken highly of during fall camp.
Last season, Penix Jr. was the symbolic leader of Indiana’s success, a figure that was praised for the team’s meteoric rise. Now, he’s experiencing the other side of that attention, finding himself at the epicenter of Indiana’s unprecedented expectations and uncharted pressure.
“You cannot let circumstances and things around you cause that to waver, and that’s what we’re going to be the challenge to him,” Allen said. “But once again, we’re just teaching him and growing with him and helping him through this because he’s still growing and maturing, too.”