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IU football position review: Quarterbacks

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It was a very good year for Michael Penix Jr. — and there’s still room to grow

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series of post-mortems on Indiana’s position groups. We’ll spread them out over the next few days and weeks, looking at how each unit fared during the 2020 season, and how each group projects to look in 2021. Next up, the quarterbacks.

How they fared

Michael Penix Jr.’s dive for the pylon — what are we calling it, The Reach? — on Oct. 24 against Penn State will hold a prominent place in the modest annals of Indiana football lore. It was an iconic snapshot of victory, the moment Indiana announced to the rest of the college football world that it was done finding new ways of breaking hearts and instead intent upon finding relevance. It also set the tone for what will be remembered as a very good season for Penix, IU’s second-year starter.

Leaning on Pro Football Focus’ advanced stats, let’s dive a bit deeper into the numbers.

Coming into the season, the belief was that Penix was on the shortlist of the best Big Ten quarterbacks. That, we now know, turned out to be true, as Penix’s PFF passing grade of 80.9 ranked second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s Justin Fields (92.2). For context, six Power Five quarterbacks scored in the 90s and 10 ranked in the 80s. Overall, Penix’s rating placed him at 14th among Power 5 passers. And here’s how Penix’s 2020 passing grade compares to other recent IU quarterback passing grades:

  • 2020: Michael Penix 80.9 | Jack Tuttle 51.5
  • 2019: Michael Penix 83.5 | Peyton Ramsey 81.3
  • 2018: Michael Penix 73.4 | Peyton Ramsey 67.2
  • 2017: Richard Lagow 70.1 | Peyton Ramsey 66.5
  • 2016: Richard Lagow 63.2 | Zander Diamont 49.3
  • 2015: Nate Sudfeld 82.6 | Zander Diamont 29.8
  • 2014: Nate Sudfeld 62.8 | Zander Diamont 45.7

By now, the Big Ten knows what it can expect from Penix when he’s on — his willingness to make plays in the face of pressure; his ability to rise to the moment; his penchant for pulling a little magic from his sleeve from time to time. Of course, his arm strength tops the list of attributes, and he leaned on that skill often in 2020.

Penix completed 17 of his 40 throws on passes targeted 20 yards and farther for 679 yards with five touchdowns and two picks. In the Big Ten, only Justin Fields threw for more downfield yards (709), completions (19) and touchdowns (nine) than Penix. The redshirt sophomore completed nine of his 13 deep passes between the hashmarks for 379 yards with two scores and a pick, and eight of his 13 deep passes to the outside right for 300 yards with three scores and no interceptions. Interestingly, he didn’t complete a single deep pass to the outside left in 14 attempts. Meanwhile, his deep passing quarterback rating of 108.3 ranked second among Big Ten quarterbacks and 18th among Power Five passers.

There’s some nuance required in evaluating Penix. He had some truly excellent performances. He also had some uneven days in the backfield — some great first halfs, followed by some duds in the second half. And vice versa.

Here’s how Penix’s weekly passing grades ended up:

  • Penn State: 76.4 (It took a while for Penix — and the whole offense — to get going here, but that’s not unheard of with openers. And Penix was at his best when IU needed him most.)
  • Rutgers: 90.9 (After a slow start — and plenty of drops — Penix settled in and offered some of his best work of the year.)
  • Michigan: 75.4 (Very good early, probably just OK over the middle part of the day.)
  • Michigan State: 70.8 (Threw a couple picks, was OK-to-goodish.)
  • Ohio State: 90.6 (Outperformed the Big Ten’s best quarterback in a memorable showcase at The Shoe.)
  • Maryland: 25.7 (We don’t talk about this game anymore.)

Was Penix elite? At certain moments, yes. On balance, though, his six-game run in 2020 is probably best classified somewhere between Very Good and Great.

Just as we know Penix can really sling it, he probably could have benefitted from dialing down the velocity a tick or two at times in 2020. And while we’re far from quarterback whisperers here at CQ, it seemed his footwork could get a little messy. Then again, his surrounding skill players didn’t always deliver. Among Big Ten passers, only Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan (20) had more on-target throws dropped than Penix (17).

Penix also could have used a little more help from the fellas up front. He dropped back 137 times with a clean pocket, completing 64.9% of his throws for 968 yards with 11 touchdowns and only one interception when he had time and space to make plays. Of course, with the offensive line play Indiana had in 2020, the pocket wasn’t always nice and tidy. Among Big Ten passers, only Northwestern’s Peyton Ramsey recorded more dropbacks under pressure (127) than Penix (94). And as such, the IU quarterback threw for more yards (677) under pressure than anyone else in the league, recording three touchdowns and three picks in those situations. Penix’s adjusted completion percentage — the percentage of aimed passes thrown on target — while under pressure ranked 12th in the league at 55.1%.

When an ACL injury ended Penix’s season in the second half of the Maryland game, IU turned to Jack Tuttle across the final two games. It was obviously a small sample size, and Tuttle clearly still has room to grow. But he made a few great reads — and even better throws — at Wisconsin and admirably played through pain in the Outback Bowl.

What’s on deck?

The job belongs to Penix. There’s no doubt about that. Yet, at this point, it’s impossible to have any conversation about his future without questioning his ability to stay healthy. He’ll be coming off his third season-ending injury in as many years, and he’s yet to play in more than six games in a season. It’s a concern.

The good news is IU’s quarterback room should be well-stocked. Tuttle received valuable experience over the final two games of the season, and incoming four-star talent Donaven McCulley is considered the No. 100 player in the 2021 recruiting cycle. And if Penix stays healthy? Look out.

Overall grade: B+

Previously:

Specialists

Running backs