Giants Rolle and Cruz to Victory in New Meadowlands Opener

It won’t begin to make up for the awful way in which the New York Giants closed the Giants Stadium chapter of their storied history last season, but two newcomers helped Big Blue open its New Meadowlands Stadium era with a 31-16 preseason comeback victory over their co-tenants, the New York Jets, in the first NFL game ever played in the brand new $1.6 billion stadium on Monday night.

The names were fitting as free safety Antrel Rolle (expected to play a big role this year) got the Giants rolling with a big pick before Victor Cruz, an undrafted free agent rookie from small school Massachusetts, rallied his new team with three second-half touchdowns to send the Giants cruising to an easy win.

Rolle made a huge early impression in his first game as a Giant after spending five years in Arizona. The former first-round draft pick had a team-leading three tackles in the opening quarter and set up the first score of the game by intercepting Jets’ quarterback Mark Sanchez and returning the ball 59 yards to the Jets’ 1 yard-line.

That set up running back Brandon Jacobs’ 1-yard touchdown plunge on a third straight attempt, to give the Giants a 7-0 lead just 3:11 into the game.

The errant pass returned by Rolle was a continuation of last year’s problem for the right-handed Sanchez, who often wasn’t right when he went left, throwing across his body. A season ago, the majority of Sanchez’s picks came throwing to the left side of the field. Sure enough, Rolle caught a deflected pass that was intended in the left flat for new Jets’ running back LaDanian Tomlinson.

Sanchez and Tomlinson each rebounded very nicely after that, however.

Although Tomlinson amassed only 17 yards on 8 carries, the 31-year-old, new Jet showed that he might still have some gas left in the tank after playing nine years as a San Diego Charger. Tomlinson showed some explosiveness at times and had one nice reception for 14 yards which set up the Jets’ first touchdown on the next play, to tie the game, 7-7.

That score angered Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin as occasional quarterback/wide receiver/wildcat specialty, sort of utility offensive threat Brad Smith literally walked into the end zone as a completely confused Giants’ defense left Smith wide open on a quick screen pass from Sanchez.

Tomlinson’s contributions were a welcome sign for Jet fans to see. They suggested that the former superstar and first-round pick might have plenty left after his production declined significantly each of the past three seasons.

Smith’s touchdown concluded a 68-yard, 14-play drive in 8:34 during which Tomlinson was a key factor. ESPN’s Mike Tirico joked during the drive that after having just one carry in the 2005 preseason and missing each of the next three preseasons before getting just twelve preseason carries last year, Tomlinson “Played more on [that] drive than he played in the past five preseasons [combined].”

Sanchez meanwhile, was sharp overall, avoiding any further turnovers and finishing a very accurate 13 of 17 for 119 yards while spreading the ball around to several different receivers.

Comparatively, the Giants were just happy that their own starting quarterback, Eli Manning, left the field well enough to play another preseason game after getting injured during his last play of the game, about four minutes into the second quarter.

Manning was supposed to hand off to Jacobs on short yardage in the red zone, but decided at the last moment to throw a fade route to the right corner. The result was Jacobs running into Manning, causing a fumble before Jets’ linebacker Calvin Pace delivered a vicious hit into Manning’s back which made Manning lose his helmet and lunge forward. Manning ended up smacking his forehead squarely against the facemask of Jets’ safety Jim Leonhard and heading to the locker room with a gushing three-inch gash that needed twelve stitches to close.

Fortunately, Manning will be fine, but he may miss some practice time depending on how long it might be before he’s able to again wear a helmet.

The play concluded a fairly tough night for Manning who was just 4 of 8 for 77 yards, 51 of which came on a very nice scamper up the right side by running back Ahmad Bradshaw after Manning avoided a sack and on a broken play, dumped a short “hot potato” type of shovel pass to Bradshaw.

One play after Manning’s injury, the Giants tied the game, 10-10, on a Lawrence Tynes field goal before the Jets grabbed a 13-10 halftime lead on a field goal by newly acquired kicker Nick Folk, who true to his earlier form in Dallas, made three short field goals, but missed when challenged from 46 yards away.

While the Giants’ first string offense failed to run the ball much or get anything going on a consistent basis with the passing game, their reserves stepped things up thereafter.

The second half show was stolen by Cruz, whose name suddenly became synonymous on national television with Terrell Owens. The Patterson, NJ native from the FCS had the final three scores of the game to become the first NFL rookie with three touchdowns in a preseason game since Owens accomplished the feat in 1998.

Although he got away with an offensive facemask, Cruz made a great one-handed grab of a pass by quarterback Jim Sorgi during a 64-yard sprint up the left sideline to put the Giants ahead to stay, 17-16, in the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Cruz added a 34-yard touchdown catch from Sorgi and then a 5-yard touchdown reception from fellow FCS product, quarterback Rhett Bomar, from Sam Houston State.

Cruz finished with game highs of 6 catches and 145 yards and after losing David Carr in the offseason, the Giants might have at least discovered some competency (though it was hard to tell against the Jets’ reserves) with which to back up Manning.

Sorgi, who was brought in to help coach Manning after four years of tutoring under Manning’s brother Peyton, was 8 of 15 for 146 yards and no turnovers to go with his two touchdown passes. And, Bomar, in limited action, was a solid 6 of 7 for 67 yards, with no turnovers to go along with the touchdown throw to Cruz, who is now making a strong push to make the final cut for the 53-man roster to be announced by September 4th.

Defensively for the Giants, fifth-year linebacker Gerris Wilkinson led all players with seven tackles and Big Blue got something out of three of this year’s draft picks. Second-round pick, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and fourth-round pick, middle linebacker Phillip Dillard, each had four tackles, while first-round selection, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, despite looking bad while getting thrown to the ground on an earlier pass rush, later recorded the game’s only sack.

Don’t expect the outspoken, cocky Jets of head coach Rex Ryan to tone anything down in the trash talk department over a preseason loss. But, for the time being, score one in the New York bragging rights column for the more quiet, sticking to going-about-their-business Giants.

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