NEW YORK — Adrian Hilburn didn't have anything special planned for the moment, so when he found himself in the end zone late in a tight game against Syracuse on Thursday at Yankee Stadium, the Kansas State senior wide receiver dropped the ball and celebrated.
He looked into the stands, raised his right hand to the top of his facemask and saluted a small group of K-State fans.
"My emotions took over me," Hilburn said. "That's what happened."
Little did he know he had just created “The Salute,” a game-defining, unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that will be scrutinized for years by the Wildcats and their fanbase.
Right or wrong, that's how most will remember the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl, won by Syracuse 36-34. Not for the final score, but for the penalization of a patriotic gesture.
With 3 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a wild game, the Orange took a 36-28 lead on a 40-yard field goal by Ross Krautman. In order for the Wildcats to force overtime, they needed a touchdown and two-point conversion and hold Syracuse scoreless.
A tall order to be sure, but it was falling into place Carson Coffman hit Hilburn for a 30-yard touchdown pass up the right side with 1:13 remaining.
But before Hilburn could be greeted by teammates, he was met with some grim news. He remembers an official telling him, "Wrong choice, buddy," and seeing a yellow flag.
No one on the Wildcats' sideline could believe the call, a 15-yard penalty that put the two-point try at the 18-yard line.
"I've seen our opponent throw up diamond signs after they score a touchdown," Hilburn said. "I give a salute, what's that? Representing our soldiers? It hurts. I know I was on their turf and maybe I shouldn't have done that, but I still don't think it was a good call."
K-State coach Bill Snyder refused comment on the penalty, but Coffman had no problem sharing his emotions.
"It was a bogus call," Coffman said.
The excessive-celebration penalty refers to Rule 9-2-1d: “Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player attempts to focus attention on himself (or themselves)."
“It was the salute, which was the judgment of the calling officials, which were the head linesman and the back judge,” said Todd Geerlings, the referee of the Big Ten crew.
“Two officials threw the flag, both judged it to be drawing attention to themselves, and that’s what the flag was for.”
The Wildcats called a pass to top receiver Aubrey Quarles in the end zone, and he was open near the left sideline. But Coffman, who completed 17 of 23 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns, overthrew him.
K-State was penalized while attempting to recover the ensuing onside kick, and Syracuse (8-5) ran out the clock.
It was a painful way for the Wildcats (7-6) to end their season. They have lost their last three bowl games, and weren't sure who to blame after this one.
The offense gained 379 yards and turned in a satisfying performance. K-State sprinkled in some trick plays and threw for 258 yards while Daniel Thomas rushed for 90 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries. But it missed on what should have been an easy touchdown pass from Thomas to tight end Travis Tannahill in the second quarter and was forced off the field at inopportune times.
The defense surrendered 498 yards, failed to account for Syracuse receiver Marcus Sales — 172 yards and three touchdowns — and, as it has all season, struggled against the run. Syracuse’s Delone Carter rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.
And special teams struggled, too. A Ty Zimmerman punt return for a touchdown was called back in the first quarter because of an illegal block in the back, and K-State failed miserably on a fake field-goal attempt trailing 33-28 in the fourth quarter.
The most deflating play of the day, other than "The Salute," came immediately following that fake. Carter exploded past the line of scrimmage for a 60-yard gain, and Syracuse was able to go up by eight.
"Somebody wasn't in their gap," senior defensive end Antonio Felder said. "I was on the outside on the edge, and I just saw him fly up the gut. It's tough because it's been a problem for us all season, someone being out of the gap or just being out of place."
Still, Snyder blamed himself.
"It ended the wrong way and it was my fault," Snyder said. "I went for the big field goal (fake), which in hindsight wasn't a good call."
Syracuse was certainly ready to defend it.
"We worked on it during the week," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "I didn't know if they were going to be running or not in that situation, but that was the exact play that we worked on during the week."
In most situations, a coaching decision like that would be the most talked-about the game. But not here.
Much like the "Pasco Fiasco” — the 2003 basketball traveling call that led to a loss in the Big 12 Tournament — the Pinstripe Bowl will be defined by a nickname.
"I was just saluting," Hilburn said. "That's something you do out of respect."