Orlando, Fla. One of Kansas University football coach Mark Mangino's favorite phrases when discussing the Jayhawks' progress is, "We're going to keep sawing wood."
KU has a better idea how many boards it needs to hew next season after Monday's 56-26 loss to North Carolina State in the Tangerine Bowl.
"This one game didn't really make too much of a difference as far as our future," junior wide receiver Brandon Rideau said, "but it was an eye-opener for us. We're just looking forward to coming back next year and getting better.
"It was a good experience for us even though we lost."
Mangino focused on the learning experience of the bowl game rather than the defeat in his postgame talk to the players.
"He pretty much commented on how we played and how we need to get better and how we need to get a little more physical and stronger," Rideau said. "It was just him talking about us getting better for next season."
The team improved greatly this season, going from 2-10 in 2002 to a 6-7 record and bowl appearance this year and will begin to take the next step Jan. 23 when it begins its winter conditioning program.
N.C. State set five Kansas opponent bowl records and five season-highs against the Kansas defense, proving how much improvement KU must make during winter conditioning, spring drills and the summer conditioning program before they are ready to make the next step and win a bowl game.
"We just have to focus," KU sophomore linebacker Banks Floodman said. "We knew Philip Rivers was going to be a great passer, and he proved that tonight. We just need to get to work and get faster and stronger. We're going to take a lot from this and take it into the off-season."
KU's offensive players put up respectable numbers, setting team bowl records for first downs and most individual receptions -- Rideau's nine catches -- but they know they also have a lot of hard work ahead.
"We're used to coming in and getting drives and going in and getting points on the board," Rideau said. "We didn't do that as well as we should have today, but we're going to come back and work on it next year."
KU's offense will need to improve with the loss of seniors such as standout quarterback Bill Whittemore, offensive linemen Adrian Jones and Danny Lewis and tight end Denver Latimore.
Other significant players who finished their careers at KU include cornerback Remuise Johnson and punter Curtis Ansel.
"I'm proud of our seniors," Mangino said. "They helped pave the way for the future. These kids hung in there through tough times and were able to finish their careers in a bowl game. They are the cornerstone of our process of building a quality football program at the University of Kansas."
Though KU's underclassmen weren't able to win the Tangerine Bowl for those seniors and themselves, they learned a valuable lesson for next year and beyond.
"We definitely got something to build on because it's a stepping stone," junior safety Tony Stubbs said. "We're getting ready for 2004 as soon as we get back."