Bucs worth only 3 quarters
Steve DeBerg couldn't believe another opponent had rallied in the fourth quarter. Donald Igwebuike couldn't believe his kick hadn't carried far enough. ``Even Cliff Stoudt came up to me after the game and was shocked,`` said Rick Woods, who used to be one of Stoudt's teammates in Pittsburgh. The St. Louis Cardinals, the team Stoudt plays for now, had just scored four touchdowns in the fourth quarter Sunday to erase a 25-point deficit and beat Woods and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-28.

No NFL team had ever led by that many points in the fourth quarter and lost. In 1980, New Orleans blew a 35-7 halftime lead and lost to San Francisco 38-35 in overtime, but that lead was down to 14 points by the end of the third quarter. That's the only other time a team has trailed by 25 or more in any quarter and rallied to win. The Cardinals did it with 121 seconds to spare. They took the lead with 2:01 remaining on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Neil Lomax to J.T. Smith - the third touchdown pass of the quarter for Lomax, and the second touchdown catch of the quarter for Smith.

That left enough time for the Bucs' offense to set up a 53-yard field-goal attempt that could have put the game into overtime. Igwebuike's kick hit the crossbar and bounced back. So Stoudt, the St. Louis backup quarterback, asked Bucs free safety Woods if he had any idea what had gone wrong with the Bucs. Woods couldn't answer the question, but it wasn't because he was speechless. ``I'm embarrassed,`` he said a few minutes later in the locker room. ``I mean really, this is worse than Chicago. And I was a notable contributor, I'll say that, too. This is disgusting.``

Two weeks ago, the Bucs led Chicago by 12 points in the fourth quarter and lost. Last week they led Green Bay by 20 in the fourth quarter and won by only six. St. Louis is a strong fourth-quarter team. In the five-non strike games they have scored 12 points in the first half and 97 in the second. Against Dallas on Sept. 13, the Cards trailed 13-3 with two minutes left and won 24-13. Against San Diego on Sept.20, they trailed 28-0 and lost 28-24 only because fullback Earl Ferrell dropped a pass on the goal line on the last play of the game. Against Philadelphia on Nov.1 they trailed 21-6 in the third quarter and rallied to take the lead before losing 28-23.

Still, there was no hint that something like that was going to happen Sunday. ``It's two games already this season where I thought we had them locked out,`` said DeBerg. When Tampa Bay running back Jeff Smith scored on a 3-yard run for his second touchdown of the third quarter, giving the Bucs that 28-3 lead with 1:51 left in the period, there were sarcastic cheers from the 22,449 in attendance at Busch Stadium. Before the crowd turned angry, it was quiet. When a group of Cardinals cheerleaders saluted a friend in the stands - ``Hellll-ooooo, Suuu-sannnn!`` - they could be heard in the fifth-floor press box.

But at the end of the game there was cheering and towel-waving as the Cardinals raised their record to 3-5 and the Bucs slipped to 4-4. Both teams are 2-3 excluding the strike replacement games. Tampa Bay's game at Minnesota next Sunday will break a tie for second place in the NFC Central Division, but Bucs head coach Ray Perkins wasn't in the mood to discuss the standings or the wild-card playoff berths. ``To hell with the playoffs, that's what I think about that,`` said Perkins, who felt that the Bucs might have been affected by media speculation that the team might be a contender. ``That's one of the things that we've got to be mature enough to handle,`` he said. ``Publicity is like poison,`` said Bucs offensive tackle Ron Heller. ``It doesn't hurt you unless you swallow it.``

The comeback started on the series after the last Bucs touchdown. St. Louis drove 64 yards in nine plays, scoring on a 4-yard pass from Lomax to rookie tight end Robert Awalt. That made it 28-10 with 12:42 to play. The situation got serious on the second play after that, when James Wilder fumbled after being hit by defensive end Rod Saddler and outside linebacker Wayne Davis. The second tackler, Davis, put an arm across the front of Wilder and made contact with the ball.

Middle linebacker Niko Noga, who had 10 tackles in the game, scooped it up and ran 23 yards to score. St. Louis had two touchdowns just 63 seconds apart, and the score was 28-17 with 11:39 to play. ``That was a big, big turning point,`` said Lomax. ``We just fiddled around in the first half, and Tampa Bay builds up a lead. We start getting down on ourselves, but then Niko Noga picks us up. There was a lot of fire in the offense's eyes after that. They're saying, `Give Neil some time, he can do it.``'

The whole offense got plenty of time from the defense, because the Bucs only made one first down during the entire four-touchdown comeback. Lomax was plenty hot enough - he was 12-for-16 for 181 yards and three touchdowns after the 25-point margin was established - but he didn't have many able receivers. Roy Green missed the game with an injury, and J.T. Smith left the field during the first touchdown drive with a hip injury.

So Awalt, a third-round draft choice from San Diego State, ran wild. He caught nine passes for 124 yards. On the next St. Louis series after Noga's touchdown, he caught three for 36 yards, the last of which put the ball on the Tampa Bay 11-yard line. On the next play, a rejuvenated J.T. Smith caught the ball in the end zone to make it 28-24 with 8:18 left.

The Bucs came back to make one first down, but on a third-and-4 play from the Bucs' 49, Wilder caught a pass and was wrestled down just short of the first-down marker by safeties Greggory Johnson and Leonard Smith. Frank Garcia's punt was a good one, but bounced the wrong way and went into the end zone for a touchback. So the Cardinals marched 80 yards in eight plays for the winning touchdown, capped by that 17-yarder from Lomax to J.T. Smith. That series featured back-to-back passes for 23 yards to Don Holmes and 27 yards to Awalt, moving the ball quickly from the St. Louis 31 to the Tampa Bay 19.

Tampa Bay came back and reached the St. Louis 36 with five seconds left, and on came Igwebuike. The longest field goal of his career is 55 yards, but this 53-yarder would have tied his personal outdoor record. ``The ball seemed to take four minutes to get there,`` said Heller.

Cardinals offensive tackle Luis Sharpe said that if it had been good, ``I would have broken down and cried like a baby.``

``I still can't believe the ball came up short,`` said Igwebuike.

Bucs defensive end Kevin Kellin had run downfield, and after the ball hit the crossbar and bounced back on to the field he picked it up. Then he stood there like he didn't know what to do. Actually, Kellin was torn between reason and emotion. ``You know,`` he said, ``I felt like if I could just pick up the ball and run it in for a touchdown We were supposed to win. It was unbelievable. No, that's not the way this is supposed to end. I was trying to score. I wasn't thinking logically. We should have won this game. We should have beaten this team.``

John Luttermoser, The St.Petersburg Times 9 November 1987