As of Aug. 23, fifth-year junior Michael Penix Jr. is the starting quarterback for Washington football, per head coach Kalen DeBoer’s announcement. But Penix Jr. took a windy road to Washington, and he will have an abundance of collegiate experience — both ups and downs — under his belt when he takes the first snap for the Huskies on Sept. 3.
High School Commitment
Penix Jr.’s college career has undoubtedly been turbulent, but it’s worth mentioning that his high school recruitment was also unique in its own right. He started his final two high school seasons for Tampa Bay Tech, and drew scouts’ interest by accumulating 61 combined passing touchdowns, 4,243 yards, and just six interceptions. Penix Jr.’s pro-style passing, combined with natural athleticism and underrated mobility, drew him offers from in-state schools such as Florida Atlantic, USF, and Florida State.
Ultimately, Penix Jr. went away from home with his commitment to Tennessee. He strayed further from his hometown, however, when Tennessee’s head coach Butch Jones was fired. Penix Jr. was back on the market and decommitted from Tennessee in favor of Indiana, which allowed him to enroll early, a major selling point for Penix Jr. So, as of February, 2018, Penix Jr. was officially a Hoosier.
As a true freshman, Penix Jr. was immediately given due diligence in fall camp and found himself in a three-way quarterback battle (sound familiar?) with redshirt sophomore Peyton Ramsey and graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins. Ramsey ultimately prevailed, and Dawkins departed from the program, leaving Penix Jr. and Ramsey as the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.
Despite falling short of the starting job, Penix Jr. still received some playing time in 2018. After Ramsey started the first eight games of the season, head coach Tom Allen expressed a desire to get Penix Jr. more involved for the slumping Hoosiers. So, in the first half of the eighth game, Allen threw Penix Jr. into the fire at home against Penn State.
Allen’s plans for Penix Jr. were thwarted in the third quarter of said Penn State game, when Penix Jr.’s rushing first down attempt was disrupted by an illegal hit by Penn State safety Garrett Taylor, which resulted in a torn ligament in Penix Jr.’s knee. Penix Jr. was subsequently out for the season, and his debut season ended with a medical redshirt.
When the 2019 offseason rolled around, Penix Jr. was engaged in a second-consecutive quarterback competition, yet again with Ramsey. This time, however, Penix Jr. prevailed, as Allen decided to roll the dice on Penix Jr.’s potential, rather than stick with his experienced quarterback in Ramsey.
“It wasn’t what Peyton didn’t do, it was more what I believe Mike can be,” Allen said at the time.
Allen’s decision paid dividends early when Indiana lit up the inferior Ball State and Eastern Illinois for a 2-0 start, as Penix Jr. tallied 523 passing yards. But misfortune struck as Penix Jr. missed the next two games, a loss to Ohio State and a win over UConn, after he was dealt an undisclosed injury during the Eastern Illinois game.
Penix Jr. returned for a game at Michigan State, which Indiana lost, 40-31. Despite the loss, it was the finest game of Penix Jr.’s young career, completing 33 of 42 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Penix Jr. similarly showed out in the following two games, two impressive wins over Rutgers and Maryland, and the Hoosiers were rolling.
But Penix Jr. was taken out in the second half of the Maryland game, and missed a win over Nebraska the next week. Penix Jr. returned to the starting lineup for the 6-2 Hoosiers the following week, but that’s when disaster struck.
In the second quarter, Penix Jr. was brought to the ground hard, and was sidelined for the third time on the season. This time, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to return, and surgery to his ailing right sternoclavicular joint confirmed the worst — Penix Jr. was out for the season. In his absence, Indiana sputtered with three losses in its final four games.
Before the injury, Penix Jr. was on track for a stellar season, completing 68.8% of his passes for 10 touchdowns and four interceptions, with a 157.6 passer rating that would have slotted third in the Big Ten, had he qualified.
As it stands, the 2020 season is the crowning achievement of Penix Jr.’s college career. Having proved his value in 2019, there was no debate entering 2020: Penix Jr. was QB1. In fact, Ramsey saw the writing on the wall in the spring and transferred to Northwestern. So, when the late start to the 2020 season finally arrived, Penix Jr. and the Hoosiers were ready to go.
Hosting No. 8 Penn State on national television to open the season, the result was instant theatrics. The Hoosiers and Nittany Lions went blow for blow, and the nail-biter found itself in overtime, where Indiana matched a Penn State touchdown to make the score 35-34. Indiana opted to go for two, producing one of the most dramatic — and controversial — endings possible. Penix Jr. rolled to his left and made a sprawling dive for the pylon, crossing the goal line by the hair of the football.
Indiana and Penix Jr. gained national recognition with the 36-35 win, and one of the greatest seasons in Indiana’s history was underway. Penix Jr. started and won the next three games, all in convincing fashion, including wins over Michigan and Michigan State.
Then, Indiana and Ohio State met for a top-10 showdown in which the Buckeyes prevailed, 42-35. Still, it was a career performance from Penix Jr., who threw for 491 yards and five touchdowns. Penix Jr. had established himself as a marquee quarterback, and Indiana was sitting at 4-1. But then, during a win the following week over Maryland, Penix Jr. was cursed with more misfortune. After a long run to Maryland’s 3-yard line, Penix Jr. exited the third quarter of the game in pain.
The results confirmed the worst: Penix Jr. had torn his ACL, his third season-ending injury in three seasons.
The injury was another installment in an increasingly tragic pattern for Penix Jr., but it was the most complete season of his career, throwing for 14 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 136.5 passer rating. Given Indiana’s top-25 finish, there was reason for optimism and a 2021 resurgence.
No. 17 Indiana entered the 2021 season with some of the highest expectations in program history, and Penix Jr. was viewed as a dark horse Heisman candidate. All signs pointed to another successful season in Bloomington. Instead, it was an unmitigated disaster from the start.
Indiana was crushed in its season opener — a top 25 matchup with No. 18 Iowa. Penix Jr. completed just 14 of 31 passes for zero touchdowns and three interceptions, and an otherwise ugly tone was set for the season. The Hoosiers won two of their next three games with the wins coming against far-inferior opponents, before the injury bug reared its ugly head yet again for Penix Jr.
Penix Jr. was brought down after a run in the second quarter against Penn State and suffered a separated AC joint in his left shoulder in the process. Penix Jr. did not return on the season, Indiana did not win another game, and the team finished 2-10.
A disappointing season and a string of injuries inspired Penix Jr. to switch it up, and in December of 2021, the quarterback reunited with former Indiana offensive coordinator and Washington’s new head coach Kalen DeBoer on Montlake. The following months provided a familiar scene, as Penix Jr. faced another quarterback battle — this time in a new setting — and was ultimately victorious to earn the starting job at one of the furthest FBS universities from his home in Tampa, Florida.
The next chapter of Penix Jr.’s collegiate career is unfolding by the day, and all that Washington and Penix Jr. can do now is hope that it’s a good one.
Reach Sports Editor Ethan Kilbreath at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EthanArles
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