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McCardell the main man vs. Saints

He has 11 receptions (more than the Saints total), including one TD and numerous important catches late.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2002

NEW ORLEANS -- Among his many talents, Bucs receiver Keenan McCardell has a keen sense of timing.

In front of a national television audience Sunday night, McCardell had his biggest game of the season, catching a season-high 11 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in Tampa Bay's 23-20 loss to the Saints.

It was McCardell's second 100-yard game. He caught four passes for 108 yards Sept. 29 at Cincinnati.

And his 11 catches were more than the Saints team, which totaled 10.

"I had a feel today," McCardell said. "It was good that (quarterback) Brad (Johnson) was looking for me 'cause I and the rest of the receivers felt like we needed to help out more tonight.

"I made a couple of tough catches but that's what I like to do."

It was a defining game for McCardell, who had been rather quiet since missing two games with a shoulder injury.

In his two previous games since the injury (against Carolina and Green Bay) he had seven catches for 74 yards.

McCardell had close to those numbers by halftime Sunday, catching six for 73 yards.

"I was ready to get back in the flow," McCardell said. "It doesn't matter whether I'm hurt or not, I'm not going to say anything. I'm just going to go out there and try to make plays. And that's what I was doing tonight."

It was one of those nights when McCardell seemingly couldn't drop a ball.

He caught just about everything thrown his way. And the Bucs went to him early and often.

On the first two plays of the game, Johnson hit McCardell on passes of 7 and 13 yards.

From there, McCardell repeatedly found seams in the defense, running precise routes and slipping behind defenders where Johnson could get him the ball.

Most of his catches were for short yardage but were crucial in helping the offense move the chains on a night when the Bucs struggled mightily at times.

McCardell's longest reception was a 26-yarder in the second quarter that led to Tampa Bay's first touchdown.

With the Bucs trailing 6-2 and facing third and 4 from their 30, Johnson hit McCardell on a pass to the Saints 44.

On the next play fullback Mike Alstott took a dump pass and turned it into a touchdown and a 9-6 Bucs lead.

Whatever defensive adjustments the Saints made at halftime had little impact on McCardell.

He continued to get behind and between the defenders in the second half, making five more grabs for 34 yards and a crucial touchdown.

McCardell was so hot that he was upset even when he didn't make difficult catches.

In the third quarter on third and 10 at the Saints 33, McCardell nearly came up with a juggling catch. He thought he should have made the catch.

But he made plenty of big plays.

Earlier in the same drive he caught a 13-yard pass for a first down, then snared a 9-yard pass that set up another first down.

Some of his biggest catches came late in the fourth quarter and helped put the Bucs in position to rally.

With the Bucs trailing 23-12 and facing third and 10 from their 45, McCardell made a nifty catch for a 6-yard gain that allowed the Bucs to go for it on fourth down, which they converted.

Later in that drive, with the Bucs staring at fourth and 2 from the Saints 2-yard line, McCardell beat cornerback Ken Irvin in man-to-man coverage on the left side, getting just enough separation for Johnson to hit him with a touchdown pass.

"I got separation from my man and when you get separation you can make catches and make touchdowns," McCardell said.

That play, along with a successful two-point conversion, pulled the Bucs to within 23-20 with a little more than two minutes left.

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