Bucs say good night
Herschel Walker found his old strides and Vinny Testaverde rediscovered throwing strikes. When the Minnesota Vikings met the Tampa Bay Bucs Sunday night, it became a game for the NFL's forlorn to be reborn. But in the end, Walker's legs carried the Vikings further than the Bucs could travel behind Testaverde's arm. Walker rushed for a season-high 126 yards - including a 71-yard touchdown run - to lead Minnesota to a 26-24 win over the Bucs.

The victory sustained the 7-7 Vikings' slim playoff hopes and ruined a dramatic comeback bid by Testaverde before 41,091 at Tampa Stadium and a national television audience on ESPN. Testaverde had his best passing night of the season, completing 23 of 41 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns. But behind Walker, the Vikings were able to drive for four Fuad Reveiz field goals and rolled up 296 yards rushing - the second-highest output ever allowed by the Bucs. "A lot of guys on offense played well," Testaverde said. "I think some guys made some big plays, which we needed. But obviously, we didn't make enough big plays to win. It's just a shame the way guys played and gave it their all and came up short."

Testaverde rallied the Bucs from a 20-3 deficit in the first half. His second touchdown pass - a 21-yarder to Mark Carrier - left Tampa Bay trailing 26-24 with 5:36 remaining in the game. The Bucs appeared to have a comeback in the works when Tampa Bay's defense forced the Vikings to go three plays and out on their next possession. But Harry Newsome pinned the Bucs to their own 28 with a thunderous 57-yard punt. Testaverde completed a pass to tight end Ron Hall for 6 yards. But he fired incomplete on consecutive throws to Gary Anderson and Willie Drewery.

On fourth-and-3 from the Tampa Bay 34-yard line with 3:13 left in the game, Bucs coach Richard Williamson opted to punt the ball and hope his defense could get it back. Williamson played it safe and was sorry. Walker, who had only two other 100-yard games this season, carried twice for 19 yards and a first down. The Vikings put the game away when quarterback Rich Gannon bootlegged 42 yards on third-and-2.

Williamson said he did not regret his decision to punt the ball. "It was fourth-and-3, and I thought we could get a good kick and use our timeouts to stop them," Williamson said. "If you go for it and don't make it in the situation, the game's over. We've been down this road before. We talked all week about believing in ourselves and playing with respect and pride. A lot of good things happened, but it wasn't enough at the right time."

Walker, who has been maligned since coming to Minnesota, made some believers on Sunday night. "He runs hard," said Vikings coach Jerry Burns. "He plays hard. He practices hard. He does everything we ask of him."

The game started in typical, tropical Tampa Bay fashion. Under balmy skies, the Bucs' offense warmed up early and drove 46 yards in nine plays to the Vikings 34. But just about the time the rest of the nation thought they might be treated to some early scores, the Bucs climbed back into character. Testaverde threw incomplete on second down and took a 2-yard loss running sideways for a sack on third down that pushed Tampa Bay out of field-goal range.

Once the Bucs' offense got things off to a bad start, it was the defense's turn. Cornerback Ricky Reynolds was beaten on a 42-yard pass play from Gannon to Cris Carter. Reynolds interfered on the play, but not enough to prevent the catch or the Vikings' first score. A holding penalty forced Minnesota to settle for a 50-yard field goal by Reveiz and a 3-0 lead. The Bucs came right back to tie the game on Steve Christie's 40-yard field goal. That kick capped a 55-yard march that went kaput when fullback Robert Wilson was stopped for no gain on third-and-2 from the Vikings' 22.

Right about then, ESPN thought it had itself a ballgame. Ha! On the final play of the first quarter, it looked like a track meet. Walker took a handoff from Gannon and turned on the jets, dashing 71 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown and a 10-3 Vikings lead. It was the longest run in a Minnesota uniform for Walker, who's been blamed for much of the Vikings underachievement. Walker's touchdown began a string of three scores in as many possessions for the Vikings. With Reveiz lining up to attempt a 27-yard field goal, Bucs first-round draft pick Charles McRae jumped offsides to give Minnesota new life and a first down at the Tampa Bay 5.

On the next play, Gannon fired a 5-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Mike Jones in the back of the end zone to leave the Bucs trailing 17-3. You could almost hear the TV remote controls clicking by the time Reveiz kicked a 40-yard field goal to make it 20-3 a few minutes later. But the Bucs weren't ready to be tuned out. Testaverde drove the Bucs 80 yards for a touchdown as the first half ended, completing a bizarre series of plays that saw him run for one apparent score and throw for two others. The final result was a 1-yard touchdown pass from Testaverde to tight end Jesse Anderson as time expired in the first half which cut the Vikings lead to 20-10.

Credit the Bucs and Testaverde with perseverance. On second-and-goal, Testaverde loped across for an apparent 7-yard touchdown run, only to have the play negated because McRae failed to report as an eligible receiver. On the next play, Testaverde fired an apparent 12-yard scoring pass to running back Gary Anderson - his first touchdown catch of the season. But using instant replay, the touchdown was reversed when officials ruled that Anderson was down at the 1-yard line. For the Bucs, the third time was indeed a charm. Faking a simple dive play to Cobb, Testaverde dropped back and fired to Jesse Anderson as the final seconds clicked off in the first half.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1991