EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Stephen Obeng-Agyapong needed a change of clothes and an intravenous line to rehydrate at halftime on Saturday.
When he returned to the turf at MetLife Stadium, it was as if that line pumped him full of rocket fuel. At least that’s what he felt like.
Obeng-Agyapong, a Bronx, N.Y. native who grew up just 10 miles from the imposing new NFL stadium, was the driving force behind Penn State’s defensive effort in a 23-17 win against Syracuse. The Nittany Lions forced eight punts, four turnovers and held Syracuse to just 260 yards with Obeng-Agyapong lending eight tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, fumble recovery and a sack.
The senior defender was beaming after the game, sweat still pouring off his forehead as he answered reporters’ questions, eagerly waiting for the chance to see his fan club of 10 family members who waited outside the team entrance.
“I think it might’ve been my best game ever,” Obeng-Agyapong said. “Probably even high school.”
That’s not too shabby for a player who wasn’t even lined up at his favored position all game. Although Obeng-Agyapong made a career out of playing safety, he did a little bit of everything — pretty much everything defensive coordinator John Butler and the rest of the staff asked of him — to disrupt the Orange.
“It’s a great homecoming for him,” O’Brien said. “We asked him to play safety, we’ve asked him to play linebacker. We’ve asked him to play nickel. We’ve asked him to learn how to blitz, how to play the run in the box, how to play coverage. What more can we ask of that guy? He’s a fantastic kid and he’s a very important part of our program.”
Obeng-Agyapong did it all except play safety.
Although he just started playing linebacker the second week of training camp, Obeng-Agyapong entered the game at that spot when starter Mike Hull went down with an injury. He stayed there nearly the whole game, pressing up in pass coverage like a nickel back and blitzing from the team’s base and dime formations.
“Obeng really stepped up for us,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “When a guy goes down, you’re always looking for that guy to step in and that’s what depth is all about. He’s a kid that works hard and it’s his senior year so it’s great to see him excel on the field like that.”
Half of Obeng-Agyapong’s tackles came almost immediately after Syracuse players breached the line of scrimmage. The average gain for a Syracuse defender when Obeng-Agyapong bore down on them? Just under three yards per carry.
Working from the linebacker spot in the second quarter, Obeng-Agyapong flew around the Syracuse offensive line and leapt onto Orange running back Jerome Smith’s back. Obeng-Agyapong punched the ball loose and fell on the fumble. The turnover lead to Penn State’s first points of the game, a field goal from Sam Ficken.
“His skillset fits perfectly to play linebacker,” junior safety Adrian Amos said. “Obeng likes to come up and tackle and it gives us an extra cover guy in third down situations in another defensive back at linebacker to help us make plays.”
Obeng-Agyapong crossed another accomplishment off his list when he stepped in front of a Drew Allen pass in the second half. It was his first career interception and it stymied Syracuse’s last chance to add points in the third quarter.
He notched another first — his only full sack in his career — when he came unblocked on a blitz and rocked Allen for a loss of eight in the fourth quarter. Then, Allen had driven the Orange offense into Penn State territory but Obeng-Agyapong’s jarring third-down hit cancelled the drive and forced Syracuse to punt.
Although Hull’s status is unkown — O’Brien did not have an update after the game — the coaching staff got a glimpse of the versatility Obeng-Agyapong can provide for the defense moving forward.
“Unfortunately, he didn’t get to start at safety like he did like he started a lot of games last year but he was ready,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said. “He knows ever position in the back seven. So whatever happened to Mike Hull happened, he was there, he was the next man up. They threw him in there and he came up big.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.