BLOOMINGTON — One by one, the passes darted in. Pitch and catch. By the time Indiana redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Penix Jr. completed his 20th pass in a row at Michigan State, he had surpassed a school record and was closing in on a Big Ten record.
Penix’s streak ended at 20, falling short of the conference record of 22 in a row set by Iowa’s Chuck Long in 1984. But it signaled just how efficient IU’s passing game has been through the first five games of the 2019 season.
Going into Saturday’s homecoming game at Memorial Stadium against Rutgers, Indiana (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) ranks third in the Big Ten in passing offense (304 yards per game), fourth in completion percentage (70.2) and fifth in quarterback rating (154.92).
To this point, Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer’s scheme has centered on short, quick passes to get the ball in the hands of play-making receivers. Indiana has averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt and leads the Big Ten in completions (132). There have been a few big plays downfield, most notably a 75-yard touchdown pass from Penix to senior receiver Nick Westbrook in IU’s season opener against Ball State.
“To get the ball accurately to the playmakers is really important,” DeBoer said. “It gives us more chances to just keep the chains moving, stay ahead of the chains and just have the whole playbook really available to us in those manageable down and distances.”
Indiana’s offense has dealt with a change in starting quarterback due to a shoulder injury to Penix, who returned for the Michigan State game. Redshirt junior Peyton Ramsey was as accurate with Penix out, completing 74.3% of his passes in a relief stint against Eastern Illinois and starts against Ohio State and Connecticut.
“I’m just really pleased with what they are doing,” DeBoer said. “It shows that they understand the reads and are working away from the facility to understand what they are going see on Saturday.”
Penix said DeBoer challenges him each week in practice.
“We have a great relationship,” Penix said. “It’s definitely grown a lot. We trust each other. He puts me in a lot of situations that he knows that I’m capable of, makes sure that the whole team is in the right situation.
“He pushes me a lot. Sometimes he puts me in bad situations in practice just to see what I’m going to do, see if I’m ready for the reads, and I always stay on top of that, and he’s always pushing everyone on the offense to be great.”
DeBoer said the long completion streak against Michigan State was a byproduct of preparation. The Hoosiers ended up with 286 passing yards and 356 total yards, putting up 31 points against the Spartans team that had held Northwestern to just 10 points the week before.
“I didn’t even realize there was a streak until we were heading back and kind of then was told about it,” DeBoer said. “But I knew that we were in a good groove, and I knew that we were seeing it well. I knew that there was a good rhythm to what we were doing.”
Penix did his part by spreading the ball around to seven different receivers. Junior receiver Whop Philyor had a big day with 14 catches for 142 yards and two TDs, while senior receiver Donovan Hale added seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown.
“They were doing what they were supposed do in executing,” DeBoer said. “You know, they weren’t, we weren’t asking them to do anything beyond their capabilities, their abilities that they have and it’s a credit to the talent that we have and then just being locked into the moment and not being concerned about what the score was, where and who we were playing. Just playing football the best that we could play it.”
Indiana is still striving for more offensive balance. Its rushing offense is tied for 12th in the conference with Rutgers (110.4 ypg), but DeBoer saw signs of the run game opening up the pass during the Michigan State loss.
“Maybe not balance statistically, but balance with run to pass (attempts),” DeBoer said. “Enough of a threat to where guys were pulling to the box and opening up guys on the perimeter.”
A first-year offensive coordinator from Fresno State, DeBoer is sensing more buy-in from players. He described players being as locked in as they’ve been all in the season during the Monday offensive meeting following the Michigan State loss. The bye week, DeBoer said, has allowed players on offense to continue to make progress.
“They are becoming more confident in who we are,” DeBoer said. “It’s a process, and we are only as good as our last game, and the next one is coming up here really fast. So we’ve got to start all over, and there’s nothing that carries over. There’s no points, there’s no yards that carries over from last week’s game to this next one coming up. …
“We know there’s going to be setbacks and there’s going to be obstacles that come our away. But we’ve just got to stay the course and keep trusting and believing.”
Indiana football coach Tom Allen described the bye week as productive and said the coaching staff traveled the country last weekend to recruit after the Hoosiers held practices Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. “Doing a great job building relationships and continuing to evaluate players during this process,” Allen said. … Allen, on the California law last week that allows college athletes within the state to profit off their name, image and likeness starting Jan. 1, 2023. “It’s not something that I’m in control over,” Allen said. “So really focused on our task at hand. I’ll do whatever I can to support our guys. I just think those are decisions out of my hands, and I focus on things we can control which is getting ready to play Rutgers.” … Allen said the bye week was beneficial to freshman left tackle Matthew Bedford, who was thrust into action against Michigan State with senior left tackle Coy Cronk going down with a season-ending ankle injury. “A week to do it when you don’t have the pressure of a game, I thought, was really good for him,” Allen said. “But he’s going to be tested. And he’s going to have to really rise up and study and dive into it and prepare at a high level.” Allen said Cronk will serve as a mentor to Bedford from the sidelines when he returns to the team following ankle surgery. “He’s excited about that,” Allen said. “And that’s what leaders do. So he’s a special guy.”