The last time the Iowa Hawkeyes walked into Ohio Stadium, they nearly left with roses in their mouths.
The Big Ten's official championship game didn't arrive until the 2011 season, but Iowa and Ohio State played for the league title on Nov. 14, 2009. Both teams entered the game 5-1 in Big Ten play, and the winner would gain a head-to-head tiebreaker, making the results of the following week irrelevant. That afternoon and early evening, a Rose Bowl berth was on the line in Columbus, Ohio.
Although Iowa had lost star quarterback Ricky Stanzi -- and its perfect record -- the previous week, the Hawkeyes fought valiantly behind first-time starter James Vandenberg. Iowa erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit behind a 99-yard Derrell Johnson-Koulianos kick return and an 8-play, 70-yard drive led by Vandenberg, just a redshirt freshman at the time.
"Going into the Horseshoe, we just weren't sure who James Vandenberg was or what he really brought to the table," Johnson-Koulianos said in a phone interview with ESPN.com this week. "James was sort of born into Iowa football on that night. That's what sticks out to me most."
The Hawkeyes actually had a chance to take the lead at the end of regulation, but coach Kirk Ferentz decided to drain the final 52 seconds. Ohio State went on to win 27-24 in overtime.
"At the time, you didn't really realize how significant that was," Johnson-Koulianos said. "How close we were to having a Rose Bowl berth and how tough it is to get there, that sticks out. It's a bit disappointing."
Iowa went on to win the Orange Bowl and finished No. 7 in the final polls. Many expected the Hawkeyes to punch their ticket to Pasadena the following season, but they stumbled to 7-5 before winning their bowl game. The wins total dropped to seven in 2011 and to four last season.
Columbus once again is in the viewfinder for Iowa, which makes its first visit to No. 4 Ohio State since 2009 on Saturday. But how much farther away is Pasadena for a program that not long ago was among the Big Ten's elites?
"That was 2009; this is 2013," Ferentz said. "Every season's different, every team's different. Right now, we're a 4-2 team, trying to figure out a way to win No. 5. It won't be easy this week, but that's what our focus is."
Iowa isn't considered a serious threat for the Big Ten title this season, although it already has matched its 2012 wins total in just half the time. An offense that finished 114th in yards and 111th in points last season has shown better cohesion behind quarterback Jake Rudock, running back Mark Weisman and a solid line. The defense also is making strides, not allowing a rushing touchdown through the first six games.
The arrow is pointed up for the Hawkeyes, and the move to the West Division beginning next season should boost their chances to reach the league title game. But the program is still trying to regain the momentum it had on Nov. 14, 2009, when it started 10 future NFL draft picks against Ohio State, including three first-rounders (offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga and Riley Reiff, and defensive end Adrian Clayborn).
"My class surprisingly catapulted us into a winning program again, with the upper tier," said Johnson-Koulianos, who had 45 receptions for 750 yards in 2009. "We had a pretty good thing going."
It's a great team that we're playing in a very hostile environment. It'll tell us a lot. We need to give them all we've got and see if we can hang with a powerful Ohio State team.
”-- Iowa tackle Brett Van Sloten
Things shifted in 2010, as the close games Iowa had grown accustomed to winning began to go the other way. After a mediocre 2011 campaign, one of the nation's most stable coaching staffs began to splinter. Ferentz had to make coordinator changes for the first time in his tenure.
More staffing moves followed after last season's clunker. Of the nine assistants at Iowa in 2009, only three -- Phil Parker, Reese Morgan and Eric Johnson -- remain.
Hawkeyes tackle Brett Van Sloten redshirted in 2009 and watched the Ohio State game from home, calling it "a competitive game in an competitive environment." Now a fifth-year senior, Van Sloten will tell his younger teammates about the great things accomplished during that season.
"You want to learn from the past," Van Sloten said. "What we, as younger guys at the time, admired about the 2009 team was their will and desire to finish games. They were in a lot of close games, but they found ways to win. You relay that to the younger guys."
Van Sloten said last week's bye allowed players to recharge after a physical game against Michigan State and figure out "where we want to go as a program." The Hawkeyes know Saturday's game against Ohio State, which has yet to lose under second-year coach Urban Meyer and remains the favorite to reach the Rose Bowl, is a measuring stick.
Iowa last won in Columbus in 1991, the year after the Hawkeyes' most recent Rose Bowl appearance.
"It's a great team that we're playing in a very hostile environment," Van Sloten said. "It'll tell us a lot. We need to give them all we've got and see if we can hang with a powerful Ohio State team."
A win Saturday would suddenly thrust Iowa back into the crowded Legends Division race before home tests against Northwestern and Wisconsin. Simply hanging with the Buckeyes would show that Iowa's road to Pasadena isn't as long as it was last season, or even before this season.
From afar, Johnson-Koulianos sees Iowa making progress. The Hawkeyes still lack game-changers on the perimeter but boast some good core pieces, including Rudock.
"This is going to be another good [test] of what this team is capable of and who they are," Johnson-Koulianos said. " I don't think they even need to win this game for us to feel good about Iowa moving forward. They need to be in this game. To get back to being a contender for Rose Bowls and BCS bowls, honestly, I don't think we’re there yet, but I do think in a year or two, we could be.
"We're heading in the right direction."