BLOOMINGTON | Indiana coach Kevin Wilson applauded the progress he saw this season.
He expects even better results next year.
For a program that has been in rebuilding mode seemingly forever, it's a new twist. Suddenly, fans, players and coaches have new hope heading into an offseason that could finally mark the turnaround fans have been eagerly awaiting.
"It's a young group that's got a lot of time to continue to mature physically, you know mentally, how to play the game, knowledge," Wilson said. "There's a lot of excitement or a lot of potential, which is exciting. But potential is a dirty word if you don't continue to improve."
And why shouldn't there be excitement after Indiana made dramatic improvement in 2012?
The Hoosiers (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten) finished with the league's second-best offense and the conference's top passing game. After two of last year's three starting quarterbacks left the program, Indiana used three more quarterbacks this year and threw for 24 scores, more than double last season's total (10) and tied for second in the league behind Purdue (28).
All three quarterbacks return next season, including Tre Roberson, whose season ended with a broken leg in Week 2.
They've found a cadre of big, strong receivers who should cause more problems for Indiana's opponents in 2013.
Stephen Houston gave the ground game a jolt of energy, especially during the second half of the season, and the defense played solid ball through early November.
Stability helped, too. Instead of the continual departures before, during and after last season, the revolving door stopped.
The combination of everything made a huge difference on the field.
Indiana ended its nine-game losing streak with a season-opening win over Indiana State and snapped an 11-game conference losing streak by winning at Illinois in late October.
Wilson got his first career win over a Bowl Subdivision school in Week 2 against Massachusetts. He won his first Big Ten game, too. The Hoosiers even won back-to-back league games for the first time since 2007 and, shockingly, they opened November with a chance to play for a Big Ten title.
But Indiana lost its final three games, missed the postseason again and left the Old Oaken Bucket back in West Lafayette.
The finish was a result of two problems: Turnovers and defense. Indiana had 11 giveaways in the final three weeks, and the Hoosiers defense struggled to get off the field.
The good news is that the players understand what must be done to get over the hump next year.
"It all comes down to tackling," safety Greg Heban said after Saturday's 56-35 loss at Purdue. "We had way too many missed tackles this game, last game, the last three weeks.
"Tackling is going to be a big emphasis in this offseason, and it's something that we have to correct."
Some of the fixes undoubtedly will come through experience, though Wilson wants his players spending more time in the school's state-of-the-art weight room.
The second-year coach also plans to find reinforcements on the recruiting trail and will ponder changes or tweaks to the offensive and defensive systems, too.
Yet the biggest motivator may simply be falling short of their goals again.
"I don't think we're physically as strong as we need to be to finish like what we want to finish," Wilson said. "There are some good bodies to work with and some guys that have now played and I've said before, I think once you've played, it's easier to prepare because you understand some of your shortcomings.
"So it's easier to hit the weight room, it's easier to have a purpose in what you want to do."
The goal now is getting back to a bowl game, competing for a Big Ten crown and not faltering over the season's final month — things players insist can be accomplished in 2013.
"All the coaches did a great job turning this program around and we're just building every year," receiver Cody Latimer said. "I believe in us a lot, you just have to see us next year."