Bucs Make Stop In 'Twilight Zone' But Leave It Victorious
If the world wants to believe this was like tossing slugs into a blind man's cup, so what? If it was taking the last parking spot at the shopping mall from a grandmother, well, think of the money she'll save. If this was kicking a team when it was down, then guilty as charged. All in all, it was a wonderfully enjoyable day for the Buccaneers, thank you very much. "It wasn't perfect, but it's a heck of a win for us," Coach Jon Gruden said.

Yeah, too bad the New Orleans Saints are the unwitting poster boys of a season lost, more homeless victims of Hurricane Katrina, and now so downtrodden they were being booted this week from temporary headquarters at San Antonio's Alamodome because of the NCAA women's volleyball tournament. Talk about cold. When the season's over, somebody remember to send them a card.

In the meantime, Sunday at LSU's Tiger Stadium delivered a must-have victory for the Bucs, and that officially makes it a thing of beauty. The rules say even outscoring the Saints 10-3 counts in the victory column, so today the Buccaneers are 8-4 and in sole possession of second place in the NFC South, one game behind the Carolina Panthers, who are dead ahead this week. "It was a whole ugly day, from the facilities we're standing in to the gloomy day with rain mixed in and a bad field," Bucs receiver Joey Galloway said. "We didn't play our best, but we're getting out with a win."

As if it was not made perfectly clear a long time ago, the Bucs again provided a reminder that they seldom do anything easy. Everybody who knows the Bucs knows the drill: smash over flash. Why would this be any different? "It was," Gruden said, "a real credit to our players just remaining poised."

The Bucs stood their ground and took their time from start to finish. Finally it was over when Ronde Barber picked off his third interception -- the fourth thrown by Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks -- at the goal line, stopping a potential game-tying drive with 1:20 remaining. "The biggest thing coming out of this game is we are 8-4," Barber said. "Regardless of the situation, division wins help."

It was just a weird, weird day. Tiger Stadium is under renovation, a layer of construction dust covering everything that didn't have two layers. The reported attendance was 34,411, and nobody believed that number was within an area code of the significantly lower body count actually filling seats, meaning the joint was mostly empty. The playing surface was battered and the turf loose.

Short of LSU turning mascot "Mike The Tiger" loose to roam the stands, the day never had a chance to be memorable. "You come out there, and I felt like it was just my family in the stands, man," said Kenyatta Walker. "It was strange. It was just dead. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. It was just real slow. There wasn't a lot of high energy. I don't know for what reason, but sometimes, you'd look in the stands and it felt like a preseason game for a minute. So you had to mentally get yourself right."

It can be said that is exactly what the Bucs did best. They did not commit a turnover. They took four away from the Saints, Barber's three picks and another by Dexter Jackson. They ran Cadillac Williams 22 times for 96 yards. Chris Simms completed 12 of 21 for 123 yards and one touchdown and never looked rattled. It wasn't always pretty, but it was never dangerous. "That's how we win football games," Barber said. "Not a lot of mistakes on our part."

With a knack for drama. "When we broke the huddle at the 20-yard line [before Barber's interception], we were talking about closing the game out, period," Derrick Brooks said. "We didn't know how it was going to happen or who was going to make the play, but that was our mind-set. That's been the biggest difference between the wins this year and the losses last year."

Now they get to prove it will last. Their season will be decided fast and furious with this week's trip to Carolina, followed by the Super Bowl champion Patriots at Foxborough and division home games with Atlanta and the Saints. "Obviously, going to Carolina in the fourth quarter of the season with a chance to get a piece of first place, we can't ask for anything else," Brooks said. "We got what we deserve, and that's going up to meet them in their place. If we want to be a championship team we got to find a way to go in there and get a win."

In front of a crowd.

Mick Elliott, The Tampa Tribune 5 December 2005