When you think of big time quarterbacks in the national landscape of college football, Indiana isn’t a program that’s likely to cross your mind.
Sure, Nate Sudfeld had some incredible years in the cream and crimson and Antwaan Randle El was a human highlight reel who had the misfortune of being far ahead of his time. Trent Green was meant to quarterback the Rams’ greatest show on turf offense, but an injury made way for Kurt Warner. The list isn’t too long.
Then there was Mike.
A 3-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite who was previously committed to Tennessee, Penix flipped to the Hoosiers after the Volunteers went through a coaching change. Indiana had tremendous luck recruiting out of Florida in the early years of Tom Allen’s tenure as head coach, who’d previously worked as the defensive coordinator at South Florida.
Little did guys like Penix, Whop Philyor and Micah McFadden know that they were joining what would become the most consequential Indiana football team in decades. Success that probably wouldn’t have happened without Penix.
It was he who helped lead the Hoosiers to an 8-win season in 2019, the true breakout that ultimately set the stage for 2020, before going down with an injury.
He permanently cemented his name in Indiana football’s history with the reach for the pylon against Penn State to kick off the 2020 season.
He promptly beat both Michigan and Michigan State, the former of which hadn’t happened since 1987.
Indiana fell short against Ohio State in Columbus, but put up a fight as Penix tore the Buckeyes’ secondary to shreds for 491 passing yards and five touchdowns to a single interception.
Indiana was fun to watch and Penix was the catalyst on offense, his ability to read defenses and navigate the pocket was key to Indiana competing with the Big Ten’s powers.
He gave fans reason to hope for a bright future of bowl contention. Then 2021 happened and Indiana came crashing back down to Earth, the program burning through the atmosphere as its ongoing descent began.
Penix ended his fourth and final season with the Hoosiers with a fourth season-ending injury. He entered the transfer portal not too long after and rejoined former Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, the coaching wizard behind the 2019 offense, at Washington. More magic ensued.
First off, it cannot be overstated how down bad Washington was last year. Before taking over as head coach, Jimmy Lake had been The Man for UW. He was the best defensive backs coach in the country, routinely turned down promotion jobs at other schools including Colorado and Alabama (twice), and now-Texas DC Pete Kwiatkowski took what was effectively a demotion so Chris Petersen could promote Lake to be his co-DC. It should be noted that other than Jimmy, Kwiatkowski was also the Dawgs’ best assistant and had been for years — it’s not like this was some underperforming scrub. When Coach Pete stepped down for his mental health and Lake immediately named his successor, everyone was pretty much like “yeah that sounds about right.”
What ended up happening was the Peter Principle on absolute steroids — sure, we all assumed there would be a bit of growing pains, but the momentum from the Petersen years came to a screeching halt, oddly enough starting at recruiting, which Lake had always whipped ass at as an assistant. (For context, since 2017 UW’s had 10 defensive backs drafted; seven of those have been in the first two rounds, one only dropped to the third because he’s specifically a nickelback, and one extra was a UDFA due to being 5’7” 7/8 but has, since his rookie year, played extensively with the Patriots. Lake was really really good at that job.)
And then for as good as Lake was as an assistant, he was just as bad as a head coach. Especially in a CFB world where the monetary arms race means one bad stretch and you might not recover on like, an existential level... maybe ever... it felt the closest to actual armageddon UW’s ever had. Even when they’d gone 0-12 in 2008, the CFB environment was stable enough where the vibe was “Well this blows chunks, but we’ll fire our guy, hire a better one, and Washington will still be here next year.” I cannot emphasize enough how much the 18 months before Kalen DeBoer and Michael Penix felt like one long moment of realizing Washington was existentially, irrevocably done for. (As someone who was raised a Dawg fan, whose parents met there, and whose grandparents met there, watching the institution that’s twice responsible for your existence apparently be over forever is a jarring thing to experience.)
Typing that out actually makes me realize a perfect parallel between our guy Mike and UW; between Lake’s tank job and USC/UCLA ditching for B1G money, before this season it really did feel like Washington was over. Or at least, it was dying a slow, sputtering death where it would just fester away like your geriatric cat that has hip dysplasia and like 14 other diseases including cat Alzheimer’s so just kinda vibes around the house, technically alive but mostly just decrepit and senile. So after last year, I had more or less just accepted this fate for UW (and most CFB programs, honestly). I thought Kalen DeBoer would be a good coach, and maybe even a great coach, but that seemed irrelevant almost. Similarly, when Penix transferred in I kind of figured “Well, he was electric at Indiana when healthy, but he’s been so beaten to shreds I can’t imagine he can function.” The consensus at UWDP was generally that we were glad to have him just because he significantly raised the floor of the offense, but that he probably was too permanently broken to have a high ceiling and even so, on the off-chance he ended up the starter he probably would get broken again halfway through the season, so... shrug.
And then for him to come in and not just be a drastic improvement, but be fun? Even before the dumpster fire that was Lake’s year-and-a-half as head coach, Washington hadn’t been “fun” for years. Even when Pete was in charge and the team was good, it still felt like you were just waiting for the things that were destined to go wrong to go wrong. It was probably 2016 the last time it was just joyful and exciting to watch them play; I had honestly forgotten what it looked and felt like to see guys just having so much fun playing, and to have fun watching them have fun. Isn’t that supposed to be the whole point of this game, fun? (Or failing that, Oregon-based schadenfreude — which is just another word for fun anyway?)
While I’m still exhausted by the state of college football, bloated corporate media rights bullshit, and the deranged wasteful arms race as a whole, I’m not alone in feeling that it’s so lovely to just enjoy Washington together again. And even though no one accomplishes anything in this sport alone, Michael Penix sure has been the face and force behind making that possible.
So that’s two entire Power Five football programs that Penix breathed new life into, which sounds pretty good.
Penix led the country in passing yards this season with 4,354 and threw for 29 touchdowns before finishing in the top-10 of Heisman Trophy voting. Pretty good!
Even at Washington, Penix kept his Indiana teammates close to heart. Following Dexter Williams II’s injury against Purdue, Penix wore a message for his former teammate on a towel during Washington’s Apple Cup matchup with Washington State.
Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.
If you, like us, want to continue to watch him play football, you’re in luck. Penix is returning to UW next season and is set to play Texas in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29. We’ll be linking to/retweeting the UW Dawg Pound’s content around that time, so stay tuned.