The inaugural Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium had everything organizers could have dreamed, from the atmospheric snow mounds that recalled days of yore to an unexpectedly wild shootout between Syracuse and Kansas State.
Everything was poised for a thrilling finish when Wildcats receiver Adrian Hilburn caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Carson Coffman with 1:13 left to cut the Orange's lead to 36-34.
Then two yellow flags from the Big Ten officiating crew came out, but not to wipe out the TD. No, it was to drain all the drama from a great college football game, penalizing Hilburn for excessive celebration.
Instead of a tense two-point conversion attempt from the 3-yard line to possibly send the game to overtime, K-State's Coffman faced what amounted to a "Hail Flutie" attempt from the 18-yard line. It failed when his heave to Aubrey Quarles was broken up, giving Syracuse a 36-34 victory.
If you blinked, you missed Hilburn's offending gesture. He ran through the end zone and snapped off a quick salute to fans in the stands. Short and sweet and not the hint of a taunting gesture toward his opponents. "Excessive'' hardly was the adjective to describe it.
Hilburn said the nearest official, the back judge, told him: "Wrong choice, buddy.''
Even then, he didn't realize he'd been penalized. "I ran off, and then I saw a flag,'' he said. "I'm like, 'Oh, really? For that?' I was just saluting. That's something you do out of respect for your teammates or your fans.''
Hilburn said he had never drawn an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. The senior, playing what might be the last game of his career, was caught up in the moment. "I was devastated,'' he said. "Maybe I shouldn't have done that, but I still don't think that was a good call. I blame myself. I shouldn't have done it. I guess my emotions took over. It was nothing planned out. I just did it. I was excited.''
From the game's second play, when Kansas State's Daniel Thomas broke a 51-yard TD run, it was an exciting back-and-forth contest with lots of big plays. Syracuse came back with a 52-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Nassib to Marcus Sales, and the teams were off and running.
Nassib threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns, all to Sales (five catches for 172 yards), and Orange running back Delone Carter, who was voted MVP, carried 27 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns. The Wildcats' Thomas rushed for 90 yards and three touchdowns, and Coffman passed for 228 yards and two TDs.
After Nassib connected on a 44-yard TD pass to Sales and a two-point conversion failed, Syracuse led 33-28 with 7:52 to play. The Wildcats drove to a fourth-and-5 at the Orange 11, and K-State coach Bill Snyder chose to have holder Ryan Doerr run a fake field goal. Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said his team practiced against that exact play, though he didn't expect it. "It was my fault,'' Snyder said. "In hindsight, it wasn't a good call.''
Syracuse's Carter immediately broke a 60-yard run to set up a 40-yard field goal by Ross Krautman for a 36-28 Orange lead with 3:08 left.
Coffman moved the Wildcats smartly down the field, finishing with the pass to Hilburn to raise the possibility of overtime. It wasn't to be.
Snyder was too much of a gentleman to question the referees' call publicly. Describing his team's reaction, he said, "The vast majority of them were dramatically pained.''