IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is back from injury. Iowa’s veteran secondary is ready.
The No. 17 Hoosiers need a healthy Penix in order to continue the momentum they built in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and his return comes on the road against an 18th-ranked conference opponent in one of the weekend’s most anticipated openers.
Penix threw for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and rushed for 189 yards and four touchdowns before missing the last two games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Penix made All-Big Ten second team for the Hoosiers, who went 6-2 against a conference-only schedule for their most Big Ten wins since 1987.
“He’s a good thrower,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s very poised and also can pull down and run if he has to. But he’s a really good passer. They can hit you in a lot of different ways.”
Cornerback Riley Moss said the sticking to basics is the key to containing Penix.
“It’s good eyes, good vision, going through the pre-snap reads,” Moss said. “But it’s mostly about just doing your job.”
Penix presents the first test for an Iowa secondary that brought back all its starters.
“It’s really about eliminating the big plays, because that’s what hurts a defense,” Moss said.
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras also will be in the spotlight as he enters his second season as the starter. Petras was inconsistent in 2020, something Ferentz attributed to the lack of spring practice and a hurried fall camp because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, with a normal spring and summer, Ferentz said he has seen improvement in Petras.
“He’s operating quicker and more decisively,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know if ‘relaxed’ is the right word to describe him. He’s got a hyperactive note to himself. But he’s doing a good job. He’s doing a really good job.”
Petras threw five interceptions in eight starts, but only two over the last six games. He’ll be going against an Indiana defense that had 17 interceptions, the second most in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“They play different zones,” Petras said. “They’ll play (man-to-man) as well. The bottom line is they’re a really talented secondary. They have a lot of experience. Seventeen interceptions in an eight-game season is pretty good.”
BACK IN THE POLLS
Indiana is in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 for the first time since 1969 and is ranked for a program-record 11th straight week.
“You have to be able to block out the positive distractions and people, maybe some people saying that they’re expecting you to do more things than you’ve maybe done in the past,” coach Tom Allen said. “You still have those that continue to doubt, but that’s a part of it and that’s OK. I think you don’t shy away from it.”
THE FANS ARE BACK
The Hawkeyes and Hoosiers, like everyone else in the Big Ten last season, played in front of mostly-empty stadiums with only family members allowed to watch. The opener is close to a sellout, with about 2,500 tickets remaining at 69,250-seat Kinnick Stadium early in the week.
“The focus is on the task at hand,” Petras said. “But it will be fun to throw a touchdown, and hear the crowd cheer again. That’s something we missed last year.”
Penix isn’t the only Hoosier coming back from a knee injury. Marcelino McCrary-Ball, Indiana’s playmaking linebacker-safety, didn’t play last season after tearing an ACL in late September.
“The edge, the hunger, the physical toughness he has,” Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen said, describing McCrary-Ball. “He can set the edge and he can cover as well, so he’s going to be a great addition to our team.”
Iowa has a 45-28-4 advantage in the series. The Hawkeyes have won seven of the last eight games, including the last three. They’re 3.5-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
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