Two years ago, USC was limping through its first three games at 1-2. The incumbent, Max Browne, wasn’t terrible throwing for 474 yards while connecting on 63.2 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Trojans opted to bench Browne for the redshirt freshman Sam Darnold and, after losing the next game, USC reeled off nine-straight wins to end the year, culminating in a 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Penn State.
You can find these situations across the country. It was most prominent during last season’s national championship game when Nick Saban benched Jalen Hurts, who had led Alabama to within a half of winning the title, for Tua Tagovailoa. The move worked and the Crimson Tide won.
Indiana finds itself in a not-so-dissimilar position. Peyton Ramsey, the incumbent, has led the Hoosiers to a 4-2 record. However, after a hot start, with each passing week Ramsey looks less and less like the long-term answer.
Even coming off a career day against Ohio State, the negatives outweighed the positives for many. Ramsey missed open receivers downfield, something many had grown accustomed to. The difference has came in the short and intermediate routes where Ramsey was off-target. Ramsey’s lack of explosiveness in the passing game was offset by Ramsey’s accuracy. Coming into the game, he was connecting on an unsustainable 71 percent of his passes.
Pro Football Focus was not much kinder to Ramsey this week, either. Of the 14 quarterbacks in the Big Ten, Ramsey ranks 12th in percentage of positively-graded dropbacks at 18.6 percent. For context, Alex Hornibrook is first at 33.8 percent and Trace McSorley is second at 32.3 percent.
Even many of the passes Ramsey does connect on downfield are a result of his receiver’s coming down with 50/50 jump balls at, again, another unsustainable level. As a Vikings fan, I watched Case Keenum toss up those types of passes all season to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs only to have it all come crashing down in the NFC title game.
When it goes wrong, it’ll come at the least opportune time for the Hoosiers. As Ramsey continues to struggle, Indiana’s margin for error grows thinner. Currently, S&P projects Indiana to win just 6.3 games, a number that continues to dwindle.
While it also projects a 76 percent chance at bowl eligibility, it’s by narrow margins. As it stands, Indiana will have three truly winnable games left in Maryland, Minnesota and Purdue. The win probability of those games, respectively, are 46 percent, 65 percent and 52 percent. The margins are growing thinner and thinner.
So why turn to a true freshman with thinning margins and a bowl game potentially on the line? Indiana’s current offense is devoid entirely of big plays. They rank 122nd in explosiveness in the passing game and 117th in explosiveness in total as an offense. When offenses know there’s no chance at a big play, particularly in the passing game, they can be more aggressive up front. It’s a trickle effect that puts more pressure on the offensive line.
One of Penix’s calling cards coming to Bloomington was his arm strength. That paired with his athleticism and his speed made him the huge get for the Hoosiers that he was. Fans saw glimpses early in the season of what Penix could be. But the Hoosier staff turned the ball over full-time to Ramsey and haven’t looked back.
The optics of turning to Penix at this point could be helpful in the long run, too. At best, Penix is the solution, Indiana wins all three of it’s winnable games and goes into a bowl game looking for its first 8-win season since 1993. At worst, Penix isn’t the answer, Indiana loses all three of its winnable games and head into an off-season without any momentum.
In either scenario, though, Indiana can turn point to its youth. In that scenario, Penix, Reese Taylor and Stevie Scott, all true freshman, will have seen substantial time. You have a quarterback of the future that you’ve committed to and your long-term looks at least a little clearer.
The reality of what would play out would likely fall somewhere in between. Indiana could head into the Purdue game needing a win and watch the Boilermakers deny the Hoosiers a second-straight year.
But given how Indiana has gotten along this season, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Hoosiers could get along with Penix. The drop in efficiency that may come from Penix would theoretically be offset by his potential big-play ability. Indiana still sports a defense that can still carry the offense at times.
It’s hard to bench Ramsey off a career night and I certainly don’t expect Indiana to actually do so. But if Ramsey has proven anything this year, it’s that he’s not the long-term answer. Largely-speaking, he’s the same quarterback he was last season. That quarterback is not enough when you’re competing in the Big Ten and specifically the East Division.
Penix may or may not be the answer for the Hoosiers. But it’s time for them to find out.