- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The text messages rolled in all week, as the questions about plays and reads and assignments filled Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' cell phone inbox.
"This week, he prepared around the clock," Johnson-Koulianos said of Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg. "There was not a moment that went by that he wasn't thinking about how to help us. He sent me text messages all week, 'What am I doing on this play?' He was in the [football] building late all night. His moped was the last moped there.
Vandenberg's tireless efforts nearly paid major dividends for Iowa, as the redshirt freshman exceeded all outside expectations in his first career start. Facing the Big Ten's most dominant defense, Vandenberg completed 20 of 33 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns to go along with three interceptions, one of which was a Hail Mary in overtime.
Like it had done all season behind regular starter Ricky Stanzi, Iowa mounted another fourth-quarter comeback, rallying from 14 points down to tie the game. But the rally fell short as No. 11 Ohio State locked down in overtime to prevail 27-24, sending No. 10 Iowa to its first road loss of the season.
"He couldn't have walked into a tougher situation," Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz said of Vandenberg. "He really handled it well. He showed good poise out there, showed good leadership traits and he certainly showed better mental and physical toughness."
At preseason media day, Ferentz talked about how Iowa would need great stories to emerge for the team to do special things. Several of those plotlines turned up Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
Running back Adam Robinson, just three weeks removed from a high-ankle sprain, replaced the injured Brandon Wegher and rushed for 74 yards on 20 carries as the team's featured back. Wide receiver Marvin McNutt, a former quarterback, caught two touchdown passes. Johnson-Koulianos, rumored to have fallen out of favor with the coaches this spring, continued his stellar Big Ten season with 71 receiving yards and a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
But the best story, the one that would have been told for decades, was Vandenberg. The magnitude of the moment wasn't lost on the freshman during game week.
"I don't sleep in very much, so I'm in there early," Vandenberg said. "I'm calling guys, I'm calling [Stanzi, saying], 'Wake up.' They did a great job with me all week, preparing me. ... All these snaps are good. When you get all of them, it changes. There's a lot more pressure, people are counting on you, and you've got to do your job."
Whether Ferentz let Vandenberg do his job at the end of regulation will be debated for some time in Hawkeye Nation.
Iowa had regained momentum and the football, taking possession at its own 33-yard line with 53 seconds left and one timeout in the bank. Kicker Daniel Murray had made four field goals of longer than 40 yards.
But after a Robinson rush up the middle netted nothing, Ferentz decided to run out the clock.
"I've done enough stupid things this year, so why do something stupid at that point?" Ferentz explained. "Had we gotten a [punt] return, had there been a shanked punt where we had better field position, or had we popped that first play, then we would have pressed forward.
"At second-and-10, second-and-9, the percentages weren't with us at that point."
Vandenberg had just capped a 70-yard touchdown drive with a scoring strike to McNutt. Ferentz said the freshman's presence didn't affect his decision-making at the end.
"If we had Joe Namath in there, I think we would have done the same thing," Ferentz said.
Vandenberg has watched Stanzi work his late-game magic from the sideline. He nearly pulled off a copy-cat act.
"The heart in our guys is just incredible," Vandenberg said. "To be able to fight back like that with all those guys, it's an experience."
Iowa won't be going to Pasadena and has dropped consecutive games, but the team's performance Saturday certainly helped its cause for a BCS at-large berth. The Hawkeyes came in as 17-point underdogs but took Ohio State to the brink.
With USC falling out of the at-large mix, Iowa will have the strongest résumé of the Big Ten hopefuls if it beats Minnesota next week. The Fiesta Bowl could be very interested in the Hawkeyes if it loses Texas to the BCS title game.
"Nobody wants to play us," Johnson-Koulianos said. "We'll play anybody in the nation right now. We're not afraid of anybody, and we can beat anybody.
"We're worthy, and we've proved this year that when you give us the opportunity to play the best opponent, and we'll make it a hell of a ballgame."
22hSam Khan Jr.