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'Talented and tough': Michigan State knows Michael Penix Jr.-led No. 10 Indiana is no fluke

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

While the college football world is starting to understand how good Michael Penix Jr. can be, the Indiana quarterback’s quick start to the 2020 season is no surprise to anyone at Michigan State.

It was a little more than a year ago that Penix, then just a redshirt freshman, nearly singlehandedly led the Hoosiers to an upset victory at Spartan Stadium. In his first road start, Penix threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns, and at one point completed 20 passes in a row.

Michael Penix Jr.

Michigan State managed to hang on for the victory in that game last season, but things have changed dramatically. The Spartans (1-2) are reeling after an ugly loss last week at Iowa while the Hoosiers are rolling, unbeaten in three games and ranked No. 10 in the nation, the first time they’ve seen the top 10 since 1969.

And a lot of it is because of Penix. While the offense hasn’t exactly been outstanding – Indiana is 12th in the Big Ten in total offense but third in scoring – Penix has been efficient, if not dynamic. After running in the winning touchdown and two-point conversion in overtime against Penn State in the opener, Penix was outstanding against Rutgers, throwing for three touchdowns and running for another. Last week in the win over Michigan, he threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns.

More: Mel Tucker keeps preaching fundamentals, technique after Michigan State's loss to Iowa

Through three games, Penix has thrown only one interception while the Hoosiers have made 16 trips to the red zone, coming away with 12 touchdowns. Six of Penix’s touchdown passes have come in the red zone without an interception.

Needless to say, Penix is drawing plenty of attention around the country, even starting to show up on some Heisman Trophy lists. But as he gets ready to take on Michigan State at noon Saturday, Penix is doing his best to keep an even keel.

“As the starting quarterback, when there is a big win you are the one that is getting a lot of the recognition,” Penix said. “So for me the main role I have is showing the team that we cannot be complacent. We have accomplished some great things, but I have to make sure the team knows that we still have a season ahead of us. We have to make sure that we stay focused and locked in. I can tell them that, but I also have to lead by example. I have to make sure they are following me and following what Coach (Tom) Allen talks about, like staying positive and keeping that 1-0 mindset.”

That 1-0 mindset is something the Spartans hope to do something about. Of course, it will take a dramatic turnaround from last week when they found themselves down five touchdowns at halftime and the game essentially over.

While the defense was solid in the second half, it will have its hands full slowing Penix.

“He can win outside the numbers on his throws to the field,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said, “and most guys can't do that on a consistent basis. He has a stronger arm, which means he can make all the throws. So he's accurate with the ball and that's a challenge because accuracy and arm talent, arm strength, are things that put pressure on the defense. The other thing about him is that he does have poise in pocket and he does not get gun-shy and he will take a hit. He will take multiple hits and it doesn't affect the way he plays and his decision-making.”

Penix has his share of weapons, as well. Wide receivers Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle are game-breakers while running back Stevie Scott III has scored four touchdowns and is averaging 3.6 yards a carry.

It all presents plenty of problems for Michigan State’s defense.

“They do a really good job with their formations, their shifts, their motions, their check-with-me,” Tucker said. “When they get certain looks they know where they want to go with the ball.

“But (Penix) is talented and he's tough. That’s what I think makes him a difference maker. He competes hard. He’s a good one. I like him a lot.”

As Penix and the Hoosiers head to town, they haven’t forgotten last season’s loss. However, they understand they can’t dwell on it, either.

“Obviously, we all know what happened last year,” Penix said. “But that’s something we don’t really look back on. Coach Allen always says that it's the biggest game coming up because it’s the next game and that's what we're focused on. We’re just gonna go out and make sure that we're fully prepared.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau