By the end of the night, Ryan Kerrigan had 22 unread text messages on his cellphone, a new Wilson football for his trophy case and memories from an NFL debut he won't soon forget.

Kerrigan deflected a low Eli Manning pass in the third quarter, pulling down the interception and turning it into a touchdown. His play broke open a second-half tie and propelled the Redskins to a 28-14 win over the New York Giants in the season opener Sunday. For a rookie seeing his first NFL action, the sequence of events couldn’t have been scripted any better.

“A moment I'll always remember,” he said.

After allowing 213 yards to the Giants in the first half, the Redskins' defense came out of the tunnel with renewed focus. They wanted to play looser and with more “swagger,” players said.

The opportunity came quickly, on the Giants’ third offensive play of the second half. With the score tied 14-apiece, Manning faced third and 10 from New York's 18-yard line. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett called a max blitz, which meant Washington's entire front seven would charge the quarterback.

Manning snapped the ball and Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie immediately attempted a low cut block. Kerrigan knew that meant a quick pass was coming and dodged the block. Manning looked past Kerrigan, toward wide receiver Hakeem Nicks for the screen, but the quarterback's pass didn’t make it as far.

Kerrigan shot both hands up, batting the ball into the air. It fell into his arms inside the 10-yard line, and he scampered the final nine yards for a touchdown. It was Kerrigan's first defensive score since his days playing high school ball in Muncie, Ind., he said.

“Very headsy play by him and a good adjustment,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “Most of those former defensive ends can't come down with the ball, which he did. So that was a big play.”

The score marked the first touchdown by a Redskins defensive rookie since Champ Bailey returned an interception for a touchdown on Oct. 17, 1999 at Arizona. Kerrigan not only broke a tie Sunday, but his score gave the Redskins an emotional advantage they refused to cede the rest of the game. The Giants managed only 102 yards of offense in the second half and never scored.

“To come out, to finally have a lead against this football team — they're a different team playing from behind,” said linebacker London Fletcher, who had experienced six straight losses to the Giants. “It felt good to play with a lead.”

Defensive players know just how delicately momentum weighed in the balance. If Manning had completed the pass, only cornerback DeAngelo Hall would have been between Nicks and the end zone.

“He has great awareness for a big guy,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said of Kerrigan. “He made a great play, got to score a touchdown, and that’s all she wrote.”

For Kerrigan, the play offered quick validation for his spot in the defense — and in the NFL. The Redskins selected the 6-foot-4, 263-pounder with the 16th overall pick in the draft. At Purdue, Kerrigan played defensive end, but the Redskins immediately moved him to linebacker. An accelerated learning curve was forced on him because there were no offseason workouts and he missed nine days of training-camp practices with a bone bruise.

“I definitely feel like I belong,” Kerrigan said Sunday evening. “The Redskins picked me to come in here and make plays for the defense. That's my goal here, and that's what I'm trying to do.”

Kerrigan is still adjusting to playing in coverage, and his unfamiliarity showed at times. But the Redskins 3-4 scheme is intended to wreak havoc, disrupt quarterbacks and force game-changing plays. Kerrigan still may be learning the basics, but he picked up on the broader concepts pretty quickly.

“I thought I did okay,” he said of his debut. “Did some things well, did some things not so well. . . . Need to get a little more pressure in the pass game and when I'm rushing. Just a bunch of little things I need to fine-tune.”

Fellow rookie Chris Neild had two of the Redskins’ four sacks, and Washington's pass rushers benefited from strong play up front. But no play was bigger than Kerrigan's score — for what it meant Sunday and what the Redskins hope it might mean about the future.

“You couldn't ask for a bigger stage,” Orakpo said, “and he performed well . . . the guy played phenomenal.”