Cruz has biggest game on a big stage

New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, right, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, right, reacts as he scores a touchdown past Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel in the first half of an NFL football game in Philadelphia. (Sept. 25, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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PHILADELPHIA -- Until Sunday, Victor Cruz was little more than a nice training-camp story left over from last season, when he caught three touchdowns in a preseason game against the Jets to secure a roster spot. But injuries that scratched receivers Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon off their spots on the depth chart in front of him thrust Cruz into the biggest game of his life against the rival Eagles.

Cue the dramatic music and the voice-over by HBO's Liev Schreiber, who actually described Cruz's big game against the Jets on the training-camp reality show "Hard Knocks."

First, Cruz caught a simple sideline pass from Eli Manning and broke two tackles to go 74 yards for a touchdown that gave the Giants a stunning 14-0 first-quarter lead, but the best was yet to come.

With the Giants trailing 16-14 midway through the fourth quarter, Manning threw what amounted to a 28-yard jump ball to Cruz against double coverage in the end zone. Sandwiched between safety Jarrad Page and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the second-year receiver came down with the ball and absorbed the hit as he broke the plane at the goal line and scored for a 20-16 lead.

It turned out to be the winning touchdown in the Giants' 29-16 upset of the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Cruz added another 8-yard catch in the Giants' final scoring drive to total three receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns.

Describing the sensation after his breakthrough game, Cruz said: "It's one of those moments where you look back at the game and you're like, 'Wow. You actually played well, and you did that against a rival opponent and you played for the Giants and you grew up in the area.' It's just one of those thrill moments that you definitely want to tell your friends and family about."

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A graduate of Paterson Catholic high school in New Jersey, Cruz thought he was good enough to play Division I college football, but he settled for I-AA Massachusetts and eventually made the Giants as an undrafted free agent. But Cruz played in only three games as a rookie and had just two catches for 17 yards in the Giants' first two games this season.

Although most wrote off his preseason game against the Jets as a meaningless footnote, Cruz used it to fuel his belief in himself. He was ready when the big moment arrived.

"The safety [Page] was supposed to bite on the play-action, but he played it well and stayed back," Cruz said of his deep crossing pattern. "I continued my route, and I knew both of the defenders were going to be there. I just jumped up and tried to make the best play I can and came away with the ball."

A replay review caused some anxiety for Cruz. "Any time those refs go to that booth, you never know what the outcome may be, especially on a touchdown call," Cruz said. "I was sweating it a little bit, but once they confirmed it, I was cool."

And so were the Giants.

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