Senior linebacker Reakwon Jones swayed back and forth as he spoke softly with the media for the final time after IU football's defeat in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. Jones stroked his beard as he tried to remain composed while breaking down a five-minute stretch he would rather forget.
While Jones understood his career had come to a close, he also knew that this young Hoosiers team would use the motivation from the loss as a jumping-off point heading into next season.
"Take this in and feel this loss," Jones said. "Feel how it feels, and you decide whether you want to feel like this or not, and that will determine whether or not someone comes back to work after a loss like this."
Coming into this season, the idea of a nine win IU football team was an online meme that ended up being only five minutes shy of becoming a reality.
The Hoosiers were the third youngest team in the Big Ten with only 29 total upperclassmen and seven players on the roster who played to a bowl game before this season. Despite IU's inexperience, the Hoosiers had their best season since 1993.
The production IU got from its youth was a welcome surprise that helped propel the Hoosiers to their first bowl game in the Tom Allen era.
Despite assuming the leadership role on offense halfway through the season, junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey once again appeared to be the odd man out. Allen has been adamant throughout the season that redshirt-freshman Michael Penix Jr. is IU's starting quarterback.
During Penix Jr.'s sporadic playtime throughout the season due to injury, he showcased his game-changing ability that generated the hype surrounding him leading into the season.
In six games — he only finished three — Penix Jr. was the dynamic quarterback IU missed in previous years. He pushed the ball downfield with efficiency, throwing for 10 touchdowns and four interceptions and marched the IU offense up and down the field in a way Ramsey couldn't.
With Penix Jr. expected to be the starter next season, Ramsey may be a prime candidate to transfer as he looks for more playing time in his final collegiate season.
"We're building for the future," Allen said after IU's Gator Bowl loss. "We're building a program that expects to be in these games every year."
With the young core IU has developed, the expectation of more bowl games is a reasonable one for the Hoosiers.
A key member of the Hoosiers' young core is sophomore running back Stevie Scott III who has become one of the top rushers in the Big Ten with back-to-back 11 touchdown seasons and just shy of 2000 yards.
It also includes IU's left tackle of the future, freshman Matthew Bedford. He started after senior Coy Cronk suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the University of Connecticut in week four. Beford showed the ability to be the anchor on the offensive line for years to come.
On defense, IU is built around freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who became IU's shutdown corner after bursting onto the scene against Michigan State while playing well against one of the Spartans' best receivers, senior Darrell Stewart Jr.
Mullen was the Hoosiers No. 1 cornerback throughout the season and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten, First-Team 247Sports True Freshman All-American and Second-Team Pro Football Focus All-Freshman Team honors.
Mullen came to IU to "change everything" and in his first season, he's been one of the many underclassmen to help the Hoosiers take their first step towards consistent success.
"That's what grit is all about," Allen said. "Perseverance and passion towards a long-term goal. So, we're just going to keep fighting."
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