EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Four surprising heroes who made huge plays and one star who had to wait a while just to get in the game were the difference between Penn State and Syracuse on Saturday.
There was Garry Gilliam, a former tight end who gained 40 pounds so he could become an offensive tackle for the Nittany Lions.
There was safety/linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who's known as the guy with the interesting, hard-to-pronounce last name that is often just shortened to "Obeng" by PSU fans and media.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State wide receiver Geno Lewis celebrates his touchdown reception with receiver Allen Robinson in the second half on Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J.
There was Trevor Williams, a former receiver making his first start at cornerback.
There was receiver Geno Lewis, who made the biggest catch of the day.
And of course, there was Allen Robinson, one of the top receivers in the country.
Penn State played a sloppy game, had some key players get injured and couldn't shake free from an outmanned, yet scrappy Syracuse team. The Lions, who appeared to have everything comfortably in hand until they were just one play from losing in the final minutes, got the big plays they needed from the players above and held on for a 23-17 win before 61,202 fans at MetLife Stadium.
"Coach [Bill] O'Brien told us big-time players make big-time plays in big games," Williams said.
Those big plays, a fine debut by freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and three field goals by Sam Ficken helped Penn State take down its longtime Eastern rival. Not much is expected from Syracuse this season, but the Orange kept battling and played good defense to stay close.
Penn State's defense, though, was even better.
"Our defense came through big time," O'Brien said. "That's Penn State defense."
With the game on the line, Williams delivered the play that sealed the deal for the Lions.
Syracuse took possession at its own 44 with 2:08 to play and trailing by six. Quarterback Drew Allen had a screen pass dropped on first down, then had his deep pass to Jarrod West defended well by Williams on second down.
Allen again tried for a deep pass down the right sideline to Jeremiah Kobena on third down, and this time Williams made a good athletic play on the ball and picked it off just before stepping out of bounds. The Lions took over and ran out the clock.
"I took it personal because the play before they tried to take it deep, and throughout the game they tried to throw the deep ball," Williams said.
Indeed, Penn State had been burned on a deep pass in the third quarter as Allen hit Kobena for 55 yards down to the 10, setting up a TD that brought the Orange within 13-10.
Just a few seconds prior to that, Robinson turned in his big play for the Lions. He sat out the first half serving a suspension, and on his first play in the third quarter he took a screen pass 25 yards. On the next play, Hackenberg found him wide open down the left sideline, and Robinson raced 51 yards to the end zone.
"He's an explosive player," tight end Jesse James said of Robinson. "He had a great year last year [77 catches], and he's going to build on it this year."
He only played one half, but Robinson had a big day with seven catches for 133 yards.
The Lions were leading, 13-10, late in the third quarter when Gilliam made a potentially game-saving play. Syracuse cornerback Brandon Reddish stripped the ball from Robinson after a catch - the fumble was a very close call upheld by replay - and Reddish scooped up the ball and headed the other way.
It looked as if Reddish had a path to the end zone, which would have given the Orange a 17-13 lead, but Gilliam never gave up on the play, fought off a blocker and tackled the runner at the 27.
"I was kind of tracking him the whole time," Gilliam said. "I just knew I had to get him."
Syracuse still had good field position, but its drive went nowhere, and Ross Krautman missed a tying 43-yard field goal wide left.
Penn State dodged a big bullet in that sequence, all thanks to Gilliam.
"Looking back on it, it was a bigger stop than I thought it would be," Gilliam said.
O'Brien had high praise for Gilliam after the game.
"For a big guy, what a fantastic athlete," the coach said. "Tough guy. People in that locker room hold Garry in very high regard. He's a guy who has a lot of respect in our program. I expect nothing less than for him to go chase that guy down."
Penn State's next huge play came courtesy of Obeng-Agyapong, who got a gift of an interception when Allen threw the ball right to him in the closing minutes of the third quarter.
"I pretty much just got underneath the receiver," Obeng-Agyapong said. "I think he ran a deep curl or whatever, I got underneath him and turned back, and the quarterback threw it right to me."
The interception led directly to points for Penn State, which got an additional 15 yards because of a late-hit penalty and took over at the Orange 28-yard line. The Lions' drive went nowhere after Hackenberg was sacked for a 12-yard loss on first down, but Ficken came on for a career-long 46-yard field goal for a 16-10 lead with 14:16 to play.
Penn State's final big play was a 54-yard TD pass from Hackenberg to Lewis for a 23-10 lead with 11:39 to go that produced the decisive points. O'Brien was asked about Hackenberg's throw but quickly gave credit to Lewis on the route and catch, running back Zach Zwinak on his blocking and Robinson for drawing coverage and freeing up Lewis.
"On that football play, Christian probably did the least amount of work, and everybody else did a great job," O'Brien said. "He made the throw, which is why he's on scholarship."
Syracuse came right back and pulled within 23-17 after an interception by defensive end Robert Welsh, who returned it to the PSU 1. But that's as close as the Orange would get as they came up empty in their final two drives.
"At the end, our defense bailed us out and played a hell of a football game," O'Brien said.