The Bucs and the Panthers, on the offensive side of the football, were totally dominated and manhandled by the defense of the opposition. The Bucs managed a meager 226 total yards of offense and the Panthers were only able to muster 130 yards of total offense.
A big key for the Bucs even being within striking distance at the end of the game was the huge difference in third down conversions. The Buccaneers were able to convert on seven of their 13 third downs while Monte Kiffin's legions held Carolina to a miniscule one-for-12 on third downs.
One of the main Bucs defenders responsible for holding the Carolina offense in check for 60 minutes was defensive end Simeon Rice. Rice had two sacks for 15 yards and was a disruptive force all afternoon in the Carolina backfield. Despite the ugly win, which came down to a Martin Gramatica 47-yard field goal with five seconds left, Rice felt that this was a statement game for the Pewter Pirates defense.
"It was a defensive expose`," Rice said. "It was a hard fought victory. It was a hard fought win that was ugly and beautiful. It was a test of our character and I think we needed one of those games. We talk about going the distance so every game means something. We have to be able to take something from every game and build on it. This was one of those games. It was a showcase about heart. This game was about heart."
In a game that featured a combined seven field goals between Gramatica and Panthers kicker Shayne Graham, who were both perfect on the day, it was fitting that the game came down to one last field goal and the way the Pewter Pirates got to that point was rather unusual.
Tampa Bay quarterback Rob Johnson, who started in place of the injured Brad Johnson, scrambled for nine yards down the left sideline on third down to the Carolina 35-yard line to just make it past the first down marker with 21 seconds left in the game. Johnson was hurt on the play and backup quarterback Shaun King had to rush into the game with 14 seconds remaining.
King, without any time to warm up, hit receiver Karl Williams on a quick out to get the football into field goal range. Gramatica broke a 9-9 tie with five ticks left in the game with a 47-yard bullet from the left hash. The snap and hold were excellent and he hit it as smooth as an extra point. Gramatica was the first to admit it wasn't as effortless as it seemed.
"Believe me, it wasn't easy," said Gramatica. "The guys on the sideline gave me all the confidence in the world. Then Coach sent me out there for the kick and I just felt real comfortable that they believed in me. It makes it a little more special when everybody believes in you. I hit it solid, but I still had to watch. It could have taken a wild turn."
Gramatica finished the day 4-of-4 on his field goal attempts, including two from beyond 50 yards. His first field goal was a 32-yarder that got the Bucs going in the first quarter.
The Bucs took the opening kickoff at their own 40-yard line after Carolina kicker Todd Sauerbrun booted the ball out of bounds just before the left pylon. Two probes up the middle for 12 yards by running back Michael Pittman moved the football into Panther territory. Then the Bucs tried to get fancy.
On first-and-10 from the Panthers 48-yard line Gruden called for running back Mike Alstott to fake a dive off the right side and ran a reverse to reserve wide receiver Karl Williams. That was sniffed out immediately by defensive end Mike Rucker who dropped Williams for a loss of three yards. Johnson was sacked on second-and-13 by linebacker Mark Fields for a loss of another five yards. That effectively ended the Bucs opening drive and was a prelude of things to come.
After a three-and-out by Carolina, the Buccaneers drew first blood at 4:57 of the first quarter. Tampa Bay took possession at their own 48-yard line after a five yard return by Karl Williams of a 50 yard punt by Sauerbrun. It took Tampa Bay 4:50 to move 39 yards in eight plays and penetrate to the Carolina 13-yard line. Gramatica hit from 32 yards out put the Buccaneers ahead with his first of four field goals.
Carolina knotted the score at 3-3 when Graham hit a 20-yard placement at the 10:52 mark of the second quarter. The field goal was set up when Johnson was sacked by Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and the pigskin landed in the waiting arms of defensive tackle Brentson Buckner.
The Bucs defense had a great first half from a statistical standpoint. The Bucs held the Panthers to 15 yards of total offense for the first 30 minutes, which set a team record. Tampa Bay yielded 19 yards on the ground but held Carolina to a minus-4 yards passing, which was also a franchise record for a half.
The Panthers immediately changed their offensive fortunes on their first drive of the second half and took the lead. Running back Lamar Smith started things with a 16-yard rush and finished the drive with six carries for 34 yards.
Carolina went 44 yards in a dozen plays while eating up 6:16 seconds of clock time to get into position for the second field goal of the game by Graham. This one was from 47 yards out and hooked it in from the right hash to give the team from Charlotte their first lead of the game at 6-3 with 8:44 left in the third quarter.
After a three-and-out by the Bucs offense Carolina extended its lead to 9-3 on its next possession. Graham's placement from the middle of the field split the uprights from 39 yards out. With 1:36 left in the third quarter it didn't look good for the Pewter Pirates.
The Bucs answered the Panthers with Gramatica's second field goal of the afternoon. Tampa Bay cut the Carolina lead to 9-6 early in the last period when Gramatica matched his longest field goal of the season with a 52-yard bomb.
The entire game changed with 3:12 left in the game. Bucs punter Tom Tupa punted to the usually reliable Panthers punt returner Steve Smith who fumbled the ball on the Carolina 42-yard line. The ball was covered by Bucs running back Aaron Stecker and gave Tampa Bay life. Four plays later, Gramatica nailed a season long 53-yarder to even the score at 9-9 and set up his last second heroics.
Johnson, for his first game as starter in 2002, had a decent game statistically, finishing 22-of-33 for 179 yards, but made some huge mental errors. He had two turnovers -- a fumble and an interception -- and was sacked six times, but the biggest blunder being a costly delay of game penalty with 21 seconds left that moved the ball back to the Carolina 44-yard line and out of field goal range. He did make up for that mistake with a 9-yard scramble for a first down on the next play but was running for his life all game long.
The win gives the Bucs a 6-2 record, which ties their best record through eight games (1979) in franchise history. Tampa Bay is also 4-1 on the road with five of the last eight games at home. Minnesota is up next before the coming of a much-needed bye week to heal the Bucs' injuries.
Tampa Bay lost nose tackle Anthony McFarland with a broken forearm and left guard Kerry Jenkins to an eye injury during the contest. Receiver Joe Jurevicius also suffered a knee sprain.
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