The timing was exceptional, if not perfect.
There was Michael Penix Jr., balanced in the pocket, eyes locked down the middle of the field, knowing that Ty Fryfogle would be there, because they’d done it so many times before.
There was Fryfogle, cutting across the field five yards beyond the line of scrimmage and turning his head for the ball, knowing that Penix Jr. would put it there, because they’d done it so many times before.
The game against Western Kentucky still wasn’t decided. Indiana, leading by two points with just under two minutes remaining, had a third and eight from its own 37-yard line. A first down would end the game. A failure would give Western Kentucky’s offense a chance to win.
But Penix Jr. tossed a dart right into Fryfogle’s hands. The senior wide receiver caught it in stride, using his momentum to cross the first-down marker. The play sealed Indiana’s 33-31 road victory over Western Kentucky and, given what they’ve been through in their careers and the bond they’ve built, it only seemed right.
“I’m always going to continue to trust him, continue to love him,” Penix Jr. said after the game. “That’s my brother. I’m going to give him the ball whenever he’s open.”
There are a variety of reasons to be concerned with Indiana’s performance against Western Kentucky. Indiana’s offense, which got off to a hot start for the second consecutive game, wasn’t able to score a touchdown for more than two quarters. Indiana’s defense, which has been the most reliable aspect of the team this season, was repeatedly exposed, especially in the secondary.
Frankly, if Indiana wants to be able to achieve its lofty goals, which were significantly tempered after the first three games of the season, beating Western Kentucky by just two points isn’t convincing enough. Through four weeks, the Hoosiers have failed to put together a complete performance on both sides of the ball.
If anything, though, Penix Jr. and Fryfogle, who have both faced criticism the first three weeks, had their best performances of the season on Saturday in a game Indiana couldn’t afford to lose. It’s difficult to imagine Indiana achieving a high level of success, or pulling off an upset over Penn State next week, without both of them playing up to their potential. On Saturday, they showed that they have what it takes to bring a spark back to Indiana’s offense.
Penix Jr. threw for a season-high 373 yards on 35-of-53 passing, adding a rushing touchdown. Fryfogle hauled in a team-high 10 catches for 98 yards, six of which came in clutch fashion, on third or fourth downs, allowing Indiana to extend drives and ultimately pull out the victory.
The connection between Penix Jr. and Fryfogle was a common occurrence as Indiana ascended into the national spotlight last season and their tightly-knit friendship became well-known.
This, however, wasn’t always the case throughout their careers at Indiana.
Fryfogle arrived at IU in 2017. Penix Jr. came a year later. For a large part of those first two seasons where their careers in Bloomington overlapped, they weren’t close friends. Maybe it was a result of Fryfogle’s quiet, low-key demeanor. Maybe it was a result of Penix Jr. still trying to establish himself as a leader.
“We really didn’t talk as much,” Penix Jr. admitted earlier this year.
In those two seasons, both had their moments of promise and a bond began to build, but they didn’t completely establish themselves yet. Fryfogle totaled 991 receiving yards as a sophomore and junior, but was a secondary option. Penix Jr., on the other hand, won the starting quarterback job as a freshman and sophomore, but both campaigns led to season-ending injuries.
And then came last season, where Penix Jr. and Fryfogle’s friendship grew significantly off the field, translating to their performance on it. Penix Jr. became the symbolic leader of Indiana’s meteoric success after his game-winning touchdown against Penn State. Fryfogle had a breakout season, becoming the first Indiana wide receiver to earn All-American status in more than a decade. They both had arguably their best games in a near upset over Ohio State, where Fryfogle accounted for 218 of Penix Jr.’s 491 yards. Sometimes Penix Jr. would just toss the ball up to Fryfogle, who would outjump his defenders and make a play as if his hands were covered in magnets.
“These last two years, we became so close,” Penix Jr. said. “We always hangout. I’m with Ty more than anybody else. He’s a great guy. We love each other. He wants the best out of me and I want the best out of him.”
But last season, the duo’s time together at Indiana could’ve ended rather abruptly. Penix Jr. tore his ACL six games into the season. There was some uncertainty whether Fryfogle would return for another season, given he’d worked his way onto some draft boards. It led to conversations between the two this offseason, where Fryfogle ultimately decided to return to IU in hopes of continuing the momentum of the Indiana program alongside his quarterback.
“We talk about that every single day,” Fryfogle said after announcing his return.
The first three games of this season, however, didn’t go as planned, while Penix Jr. and Fryfogle navigated the uncharted territory of high expectations and heightened pressure. Penix Jr. looked lost as he returned from a torn ACL. Fryfogle had just 11 receptions for 126 yards, including three drops in last week’s loss to Cincinnati.
Saturday, however, was a tangible progress for Indiana’s offense, which put up 507 total yards, much due to the performances of Penix Jr. and Fryfogle, where their chemistry was apparent again. Most of the damage was done in the first half, where Penix Jr. connected with Fryfogle for seven catches and 65 yards. Then in the fourth quarter, on a third and four, Penix Jr. hit Fryfogle for a 10-yard gain, keeping the drive alive, which ended up resulting in the deciding touchdown. A few minutes later, there was the crucial third-down conversion to ice the game.
“I strive to be as mentally strong as Mike Penix,” kicker Charles Campbell, who made four field goals, said. “He’s a dog. He really is.”
There still plenty to work on for Penix Jr. and Fryfogle, but after a worrisome three games from both, Saturday showed that they still have some fight left in them.