For more than three quarters against the Eagles Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, the Giants made up for the loss of injured linebacker Michael Boley with a three-rookie rotation of Mark Herzlich, Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger. But when it came down to crunch time, there was nothing any of the rookies or the rest of the defense could do to stop the Eagles from driving 80 yards in 18 plays to pull out a 17-10 victory.
The longest play in a drive that consumed 8:51 was an 18-yard completion from quarterback Vince Young to wideout Riley Cooper. But the Eagles just kept chipping away, converting all six third-down situations they faced before Young hit Cooper for the winning 8-yard touchdown pass with 2:45 left.
"That's the problem,'' said Williams, who made a shoestring tackle to stop Young for a 3-yard gain to the Giants' 20 to force a third-and-4 play. "Those little things add up.''
Sure enough, Young completed a 10-yard pass to DeSean Jackson on the next play. Paysinger saved a touchdown by knocking him out of bounds, but that only prolonged the Giants' agony.
Without a doubt, that last drive was a baptism by fire for the rookies, especially Herzlich, the undrafted free agent out of Boston College who made his first NFL start. He didn't learn he was getting the call for sure until Saturday, but he played a solid game with four tackles and came close to an interception until safety Kenny Phillips swooped in to catch a tipped Young pass in the first quarter.
The early chance for an interception excited him, but he said, "It's a good thing I saw a flash of blue, or I would've run into KP.''
Herzlich's previous action this season had come on special teams. "It was a good experience,'' he said. "I love playing this game, and it was a great opportunity to play on this stage. It was unforgettable. I've got a lot of things to learn, but it was an enjoyable experience.''
No one could appreciate the chance to play more than Herzlich, who was one of the first free agents the Giants called when the NFL lockout ended. He was an All-American at BC before contracting Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that caused him to sit out a season.
Herzlich generally was on the field with veteran linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka on first and second down, but they were playing a nickel defense most of the time with five defensive backs. Williams and Paysinger often came in on third-down passing situations to utilize their speed.
The rookies all helped contain Eagles running back LeSean McCoy for three quarters, holding him to 43 yards on 14 carries. But McCoy finished with 113 yards, including a 60-yard run at the very end of the game.
"We contained McCoy for the most part, but that last run doesn't taste good,'' Herzlich said. "I made good plays and bad plays, but I'll own up to my mistakes.''
Told that the Eagles went 6-for-6 on third down on that last scoring drive, Herzlich said, "That [stinks]. But that's what you live for. Our play mattered there, and we needed to rise up. If they get two yards on first down, that's a win, two yards on second down, that's a win. But if you lose third down, it's a loss for the drive.
"I'll have more confidence froim being out there, but I won't feel good about a loss no matter what I did right.''