BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — The Indiana Hoosiers expect quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to start the season opener at Iowa — even if he doesn't take a hit until Sept. 4.
And Penix's return has the Hoosiers thinking big again.
On Monday, coach Tom Allen told reporters Penix's recovery remains on schedule, a development that could help the Hoosiers exceed last year's achievements.
“We’ve been pretty clear on our goals, haven’t shied away from it," Allen said Thursday. “We finished second in the Big Ten East last year. Our goal is to play in the Big Ten championship and win the game. There are a lot of things that have to happen before that occurs."
Replicating the breakout 2020 season won't be easy.
Indiana cracked the top 10 for the first time since 1967, posted its best conference record (6-1) in more than a half century and came within a whisker of playing for the third league crown in school history.
The Hoosiers also know how critical it is to have a healthy Penix on the field.
His nifty 2-point conversion run in overtime gave Indiana it second win over longtime powerhouse Penn State. Two weeks later, Penix threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns while snapping a 24-game losing streak in the Michigan series. Two weeks after that, he nearly led the Hoosiers back from a 28-point, third-quarter deficit at Ohio State only to come up one touchdown short. Still, his sensational play converted doubters into believers.
Then in November, Penix suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee — his third straight season-ending injury and the second time he'd hurt the ACL in the right knee. While Indiana continued to win, the lingering offseason question became Penix's health.
He's expected to participate in Friday's first practice albeit with one restriction.
“We're not going to tackle him," offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said. “Mike is not going to get touched, so if we're doing a team drill that could potentially put him in harm's way, we'll be mindful of that. I think any time you're coming off an injury and going into practice, you have to be careful because the volume and intensity of practice is much higher."
Sheridan believes creative play-calling also can help Penix limit the big shots he's occasionally taken from bigger defenders in the middle of the field. A revamped offensive line also appears capable of keeping Penix upright.
Penix doesn't appear to be worried. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound redshirt junior walked to the podium Thursday without a hitch in his step or any detectable fear of suffering yet another injury.
“What we want to prove is that last year wasn't a fluke, that we're a team that can compete with anybody," Penix said. “We have a lot of guys who didn't see the field a lot last year and who will make big plays for us this year We know what we're capable of and we need to be great."
One newcomer who could wind up in the mix is Donaven McCulley, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound freshman quarterback from Indianapolis.
With Penix restricted from contact, backup quarterback Jack Tuttle coming off shoulder surgery and third-string quarterback Dexter Williams II sitting out after tearing an ACL in spring practice, McCulley may need to take snaps.
“Donaven needs to be ready to play yesterday," Sheridan said. “We have to get him ready to go and that goes for every player in that room. I feel good about the leadership and toughness in that room, we've just got to make sure they're all ready to go.”
And with the conference opener less than a month away, the Hoosiers understand there's no time to waste.
“A lot of expectations," Allen said. “That’s been the challenge, is to go from believing, and I believe we have a team that believes, to now expecting a certain outcome on game day."