AMES, Iowa — Josh Stewart could feel the dream scenario getting closer as November marched on two years ago.
Returning to his hometown of New Orleans, a place he and his family had fled following Hurricane Katrina. Coming back with his Oklahoma State Cowboys, who would be playing for the national championship for the first time.
Then came that Friday night at Iowa State, where a shocking double-overtime loss squashed OSU's title chances.
Nearly two years later, as the No. 19 Cowboys prepare for their first trip back to Ames since that defeat, Stewart hasn't forgotten.
“Just all of that stuff was just building up in me and I was getting excited,” Stewart said. “For that (loss) to happen and that feeling after the game, the fans running around talking trash and saying rude things, there's just not a worse feeling in my football career.
“There's gonna be a lot of emotion going back up there for a lot of us. We're ready to play this game and get some payback.”
Earlier this week, Cowboy coach Mike Gundy tried to downplay the impact of the 2011 game, an event that will always be linked to the plane crash a day earlier that killed women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna.
Many of the Cowboys give a different story.
They know a win Saturday won't erase the heartbreak from two years ago. Nonetheless, it still serves as motivation.
“This is our chance to kind of get that sour taste out of our mouth, giving up those expectations that year,” linebacker Shaun Lewis said.
Stewart vividly remembers the events of that day.
Getting a call from his mother in the morning to make sure he was OK after she had heard about the plane crash. Players texting each other and gathering in the hotel hallway to search for answers, before quietly sitting in a team meeting as Gundy delivered the tragic news.
“It was just a whole bunch of stuff other than that football game that we had to focus on,” Stewart said. “… Our game wasn't canceled, so we had to somehow get our mindset ready for that.”
They vowed to play for Budke and Serna. And early in the second half, the Cowboys had a 17-point lead.
Then the Cowboy defense loosened. Quinn Sharp barely missed what likely would have been the game-winning field goal. Brandon Weeden threw a crucial interception in the second overtime.
Finally, Iowa State's Jeff Woody plowed into the end zone for the winning score, sending the Cyclone fans into a frenzy as they stormed the field and belted out the words to “Sweet Caroline.”
Gundy said that loss haunts him the same as any other— from a philosophical and coaching standpoint. Which is why he doesn't anticipate any extra emotions when he walks on the Jack Trice Field Saturday.
Besides, much has changed with the OSU program since that night. There's been a revolving door at quarterback, the latest turn coming with last week's switch from J.W. Walsh back to Clint Chelf. OSU's identity has shifted from an offensive powerhouse to a defensive team that despite its struggles to score finds itself in the Big 12 title race.
Saturday's game won't heal the past. It's not a step on a national championship run. It can't serve as true revenge, as Iowa State remains a Big 12 bottom-feeder that is coming off a 71-7 thrashing at the hands of Baylor.
But the return to Ames will bring back memories. And receiver Tracy Moore hopes to create some better ones this time around.
“How bad their crowd talked to us, the ‘overrated' chants and everything,” Moore said. “It's all gonna come back to mind and it's just gonna make a victory much sweeter.
“I don't know if you can make what happened (two years ago) good. I think … I just want to blow them out, honestly.”