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McCardell's clutch play pays off at last

JOANNE KORTH and ROGER MILLS
Published December 8, 2003

NEW ORLEANS - Bucs receiver Keenan McCardell has been making big catches late in games all season. But this time when the game was over, he got to celebrate.

McCardell made two critical third-down receptions to keep alive a clock-eating, fourth-quarter possession in Sunday's 14-7 victory against the Saints.

"That's what I expect of myself: make the play," said McCardell, whose eight touchdowns this season all have come in losses. "I always want it in that situation because I know that's a way to help our offensive team stay on the field."

After recovering a fumble, the Bucs started at their 9 with 8:10 left. Facing third and 9 at the 10, quarterback Brad Johnson found McCardell, who spun from a defender and scrambled 5 yards to pick up the first down.

Three plays later, on third and 9 at the Bucs 22, Johnson hit McCardell down the right sideline for 35 yards, giving the Bucs a fresh set of downs in Saints territory.

"If you're a receiver, you want it in those crucial times like that," said McCardell, who finished with a team-high six catches for 85 yards, all in the second half. "My job is to make the play and I made it. I've been making them all year."

Though the drive did not produce points - Martin Gramatica's 35-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by Tebucky Jones - it consumed nearly six minutes, taking the game clock to 2:14.

"That was a big drive," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Keenan McCardell, I think all his grabs came in the second half and just about all of them were very fine catches. He's a Pro Bowl receiver and we're trying every way we can to utilize him."

NO MORE AUTOMATIC: Gramatica also sliced a 44-yard field-goal attempt wide right late in the third quarter, making him 11-of-20 for the season, 5-of-14 from 30 yards or more.

"They didn't go through," he said.

With the Bucs leading 14-7, a field goal would have made it a two-possession game.

"All I can say is we expect him to make those kicks," Gruden said.

BETTER NOT POUT: The Bucs, who entered with a league-high 917 penalty yards, committed nine for 85 yards. Twice, Charles Lee was called for offensive pass interference, negating his 10-yard reception and a 28-yard pass to Edell Shepherd.

Though Gruden stopped short of criticizing the officials, he disagreed with some of the calls.

"It's the Christmas season and I'm going to try to be as careful as I can," Gruden said. "But there's an awful lot of penalties being levied and some of them, as always, I have to fight for what I think is a true penalty and what isn't."

When the headset communication system between Gruden and Johnson failed, backup quarterback Shaun King ran onto the field to give Johnson the play. King received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

"I'm not going to stand up here and cry," Gruden said. "We learned a valuable lesson that no man can go on the field and talk to the quarterback during the course of the game.

"I've got to do a better job teaching our team to stay behind the white line."

BLOCK PARTY: David Gibson's punt block in the final minute of the first half was the Bucs' first since Todd Yoder's against the Ravens on Dec.29, 2001. Ronde Barber returned it to the Saints 1 to set up the winning touchdown, a pass to Warren Sapp with 12 seconds left.

"Every time you rush, you've got to expect that no one's going to block you," Gibson said. "And my guy didn't block me very well.

"It's a game of momentum and we were able to catch the momentum. We needed something to pick us up and feel good."

OLD RELIABLE: Sapp's second career touchdown catch was not only dramatic but acrobatic. Open in the end zone, Sapp tipped the slightly overthrown ball, then got both hands around it near waist level.

"The lights, I lost it in the lights. But I was on autopilot. I knew he put it somewhere right about here," Sapp said, extending his arms, "and I stuck my hands out.

"You know the old rule: Once it hits your hands, you have to catch it."

As a tight end, Sapp has four catches for 39 yards. Two were for touchdowns, two for first downs.

"One way or another, there's going to be a down, either a first down or a touchdown," Sapp said.

Sapp has caught the ball every time he was the intended receiver.

"Hmm, we've got to get him the ball more," said Johnson, who tied his team record of 22 touchdown passes set last season.

INJURY REPORT: Sapp left early in the second half with a left foot strain. Safety John Lynch suffered a right shoulder stinger during the second defensive series but returned. Gibson missed the second half with a left ankle sprain. Tight end Ken Dilger suffered a right hip strain but returned.

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