Before the game even started, before Garry Gilliam ever stopped that Syracuse touchdown, DaQuan Jones was marvelling at his teammate.
Gilliam had spent the offseason bulking up for the switch from tight end to right tackle, where he started Saturday.
“It’s crazy how he kept his quickness and speed,” said Jones, a defensive lineman. “I gain a couple of pounds and I feel like I’m moving like a turtle.”
When Syracuse’s Brandon Reddish scooped up an Allen Robinson fumble in the third quarter, he broke into the open across midfield and had just Gilliam between him and the end zone.
Gilliam, now listed at 6-foot-6 and 303 pounds, patiently waited Reddish out, took a good angle and dropped the cornerback with a bearhug.
Not only did he prevent the touchdown, Syracuse missed a field goal at the end of the drive and the Nittany Lions hung on to win by six.
“It doesn’t matter what the situation is,” Gilliam said. “You’re expected to make the play.”
That was the mantra for several Penn State players who made seemingly small but critical plays in the win.
Take away any of them, and the Lions may have been looking at a second straight year with an 0-1 start.
“I expect nothing less of (Gilliam) than to go chase that down,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “That showed his athletic ability but also his heart and toughness.”
O’Brien also lauded another play that could have been overlooked.
On what proved to be the winning touchdown, Christian Hackenberg sailed a deep ball right on target for Eugene Lewis for a 54-yard score. But Hackenberg had time to step up in the pocket and wait for Lewis to streak open because tailback Zach Zwinak comfortably picked up the blitz.
After the score, O’Brien made a beeline for Zwinak on the bench.
“You made that play!” the coach shouted, slapping Zwinak on his shoulder pads. “You did! You did!”
“On that play, Christian probably did the least amount of work and everyone else (made it happen),” O’Brien said after the game, also praising Lewis for a well-run route and Allen Robinson for drawing attention from the defense. “He just had to make the throw. That’s why he’s on scholarship.”
Players from up and down the roster stepped up.
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a safety his entire career, played mostly outside linebacker when Mike Hull left with an apparent knee injury.
Sophomore corners Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas — a wide receiver and a special teams player last year, respectively — played tight and aggressive, with Williams sealing the win with an interception.
Former walk-on Carl Nassib, who was awarded a scholarship for 2013-14 just days earlier, dropped Syracuse punter Riley Dixon for a loss of 17 after a low snap.
Holder Ryan Keiser had his number called for a fake field goal in the second quarter, running for a first down and setting up the first of three Sam Ficken field goals.
And though they weren’t small plays like some of the others, Ficken was instrumental in the win. The junior went 3-for-3, including a career-long 46-yard kick, to extend his streak to 13 straight makes.
O’Brien personally congratulated Ficken in front of the entire team in the locker room after the game.
“Everyone went crazy,” O’Brien said.
“That meant a lot to me,” Ficken said. “From where I came from with last season’s rough start, for him to give me a shout-out in front of the team, it was a boost of confidence.”
That’s because there was no Penn State player who faced more scrutiny last season, particularly after missing four kicks and an extra point in a one-point loss at Virginia, leading to plenty of harrasment on social media.
“So especially to all those tweeters after the Virginia game, I’d say he’s done a hell of a job,” O’Brien said. “And he deserves it. He’s worked extremely hard.”