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Flip, flop

The Bucs rally to force overtime. But punter Tom Tupa's desperation pass is intercepted for the winning TD.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002


The Bucs rally to force overtime. But punter Tom Tupa's desperation pass is intercepted for the winning TD.

TAMPA -- They played the world premier of the Bucs under Jon Gruden on Sunday against New Orleans. It was a dramatic cliffhanger that ended in sudden death.

But for Bucs fans, the season opener was like watching a patient wake up from a coma just long enough to say goodbye.

Tampa Bay scored twice in the fourth quarter, forcing overtime on a harried 40-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica as regulation expired.

And despite having the ball in Saints territory twice in overtime, the Bucs lost 26-20 when linebacker James Allen intercepted a pass by punter Tom Tupa in the Tampa Bay end zone for a touchdown.

The defeat left many of the 65,554 at Raymond James Stadium silent. Not only did it ruin Gruden's debut, but by losing in the fifth quarter to the team from the French Quarter, the Bucs fell to 0-1 in the NFC South.

"You can't get a big, fat head when you win," Gruden said. "And you try hard not to panic when you lose.

"I'm disappointed. But I'm not going to be the one to let this fester very long. We have a good football team, and we're going to come back from this."

Behind the efforts of quarterback Brad Johnson, the Bucs made an improbable comeback to send the game into overtime. Tampa Bay trailed 13-3 at halftime and 20-10 until 2:41 was left in regulation. That's when Johnson came alive, completing 9 of 12 passes for 73 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown to Joe Jurevicius to make it 20-17.

The Bucs defense, which allowed the Saints to convert on 10 third downs (more than any game last season) got the ball back for the offense with no timeouts and 2:01 left. Helped by a roughing the passer penalty, Johnson went 5-of-8, including an impromptu 11-yard completion to Keenan McCardell, to give Gramatica a chance.

With 16 seconds and the clock ticking, the Bucs got their special teams on the field for Gramatica's tying field goal as time expired.

"It was a third-down call to spike the ball and make it a fourth-down kick, a long kick," Johnson said. "I was getting ready to spike it, and at the last second, I see it's a third-down deal. I take the snap and start running with it.

"At worst, I was going to throw the ball away, and McCardell makes a play. We had no timeouts left and did a great job of getting the team on there to kick the field goal."

Right then, you might have figured Gruden and the Bucs would get out with a victory. But you would have figured wrong.

Despite winning the coin flip in overtime and driving to the New Orleans 39 and 45 on separate possessions, the Bucs lost. Gruden passed up a 56-yard field goal into the wind for an attempt to pin the Saints deep. But twice, Tupa's punts reached the end zone for touchbacks. Gramatica said he agreed with Gruden's decision.

"I'm always going to be ready if the coach sends me out there," Gramatica said. "But he made the right choice with the defense that we have. They're not going to move the ball on us. I think it was the right decision."

But it turned out wrong. The Saints finished with 368 total yards but made only one first down in overtime. The Bucs lost the field position game, though, when Karl Williams fielded a punt from Dirk Johnson and was tackled at the Tampa Bay 6.

The Bucs could not move it from there. And with Tupa punting from the end zone, Fred McAfee beat safety John Howell to the outside, forcing Tupa to pull the ball down.

"I just saw a guy right in front of me. It would've been a safety that way, so I was trying to pull it down and get it out of there," Tupa said. "He wrapped me up, so I was just trying to get it out." Tupa's left-handed pitch, intended for safety John Howell, went into Allen's hands in the end zone for a touchdown.

"Guys could've folded their tents, but not one time did guys think about quitting," Johnson said. "It was an unbelievable game to be a part of, especially at the end.

"You live for these moments. Twelve or 13 games are going to come down to the final drive. We gave ourselves a chance. We just didn't come up with it in the end."

Playing behind a patchwork offensive line, Johnson was pressured throughout the game and sacked three times. "I threw the ball away probably 15 or 20 times," Johnson said. "I probably set a record in the NFL for that." He also didn't get much help. During the first half, McCardell dropped a pass that would have given the Bucs a first down at the Saints 14. Keyshawn Johnson dropped one that would have kept a drive alive at the New Orleans 25.

There also was special teams. Gramatica's 47-yard field goal on the final play of the first half was blocked by Boca Ciega graduate Darren Howard. He also missed wide left from 53 yards.

However, the Bucs defense also struggled. Deuce McAllister rushed 31 times for 109 yards, and Aaron Brooks passed for 260 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown to Donte' Stallworth after the Bucs cut the lead to 13-10.

"In the beginning, it was frustrating because we weren't playing up to our abilities," safety John Lynch said. "We were on the field a whole lot, but it was because of our own doing; allowing third down conversions, a lot of sloppy tackling. We pride ourselves on third down because it gives us a great opportunity to get off the field. But it wasn't up to our standard.

"In the end, I think we showed great character coming back. But in the end, we're going to look at this game, and there's going to be a lot of corrections to make."

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