The wait is almost over for Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
The highly-touted high school recruit lost last summer’s battle to become Indiana’s starting quarterback, then redshirted after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last October and then only did limited work during the spring as he recovered. He will finally make his first college start Saturday against Ball State to open the season.
And he’s already cleared one significant hurdle.
“It was good for me because practice quarterbacks don’t normally get hit, but it just showed me that I’m ready,” he said, describing how a defensive lineman inadvertently fell into the surgically-repaired knee during a recent workout. “I don’t have anything to worry about, I just have to go out and play.”
Hoosiers coach Tom Allen has no doubt a healthy Penix can excel on the field.
He nearly made a quarterback change before the season-ending injury to Penix and on Monday announced the former Florida high school star had beaten out incumbent Peyton Ramsey and redshirt freshman Jack Tuttle, a transfer from Utah who is eligible this season.
“To me, I just see it being that guy that can create plays with both his arms and his legs,” Allen said. “I think that’s where Mike’s at his best.”
Indiana already has a sense of how Penix will perform. He appeared in three games last season.
Ball State understands, too, after watching Penix go 4 of 5 with 29 yards and run three times for 13 yards in last year’s 38-10 loss in Bloomington.
“We’re certainly ready for the dual threat aspect he represents,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said. “We’ve got to limit him, make sure we’re disciplined when you talk about rushing the passer and we’ve got to keep him in the pocket.
Now, though, Penix will be on the big stage — Lucas Oil Stadium — amid high hopes and giant expectations for a program that came up one win short of bowl eligibility each of the past two seasons.
“Just a great game, a positive game, leading the offense and making sure we get a win,” Penix said, reciting his opening day goals. “
When Ball State quarterback Riley Neal decided to transfer to Vanderbilt after last season, redshirt junior Drew Plitt inherited the job. Plitt is not an unknown quantity in Muncie, Indiana. He’s started six games over the last two seasons including the final three games in 2018, and he threw three touchdown passes in an overtime win over Western Michigan. He also faces the challenge of running an offense that led the Mid-American Conference in yards passing per game (254.2) last season.
The Hoosiers also have some new faces calling plays this season. Allen hired Kalen DeBoer to run the offense and promoted Kane Womack from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. DeBoer replaces Mike DeBord, who retired after last season. Womack takes over from Allen, who called the defensive signals each of the last three seasons — the last two as head coach.
Indiana had an opportunistic defense last season, finishing 11th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 26 takeaways. This year, with five of their starters in the back seven returning, they don’t expect that to change. Indiana opens the season with a streak of recording at least one takeaway in 18 consecutive games — the second-longest streak in the nation. Central Florida’s streak stands at 32. The Hoosiers also have had at least one interception in 10 consecutive games.
Ball State receiver Riley Miller could use Saturday’s stage to showcase his skills for NFL scouts, too. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound fifth-year senior earned second-team all-conference honors last season and was chosen the Cardinals most outstanding player with 61 receptions for 878 yards and seven touchdowns. And the Hoosiers will be paying attention to Miller. He has a streak of six straight games with a touchdown catch for a team that went 4-0 when scoring at least 24 points in 2018.