One half fit to test the Pack
Rusty Tillman loved the matchup. "We've got a cornerback covering their tight end," said Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator. "Perfect! Or so you would think."
It was rookie on rookie. Bucs plan was, 5-foot-9 Clifton Abraham from Florida State would use his speed advantage to buzz and sting and frustrate the 243-pound bulk of Pete Mitchell, a tight end from Boston College.
For Sunday's first 30 minutes, Tillman's defense was hairy, stony, heroic and untarnished. Mitchell was muffled, catching one pass from 12 yards. Tampa Bay went on a 10-zip high. "We were dominating them," said Bucs defensive lineman Brad Culpepper. But, at halftime, Pete must've slipped into the Jags' locker room and coated himself with Teflon. For the final two periods, Abraham found it impossible to stick to Mitchell. Only the football kept getting to Jacksonville's tight end. It would be near-deadly for Tampa Bay.
In the second half, Mitchell caught nine passes for a monstrous 149 yards. Bucs defenders changed acts, going from throttling dominators to threatened backpedalers, most memorably on a late 96-yard Jacksonville drive that almost stole the game. With 37 seconds left, there was the husky but elusive Mitchell being brilliant one more time, scorching the buzzing little Seminole with a move in the middle of the end zone, beating Abraham and associates to grasp a 12-yard touchdown throw.
Why didn't the Bucs lose? Only because Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin, who was Mitchell's old boss at B.C., tried to double his pleasure on the point-after. Only because a resulting pass, completed to Jimmy Smith, wound up inches out of bounds. Only because, as an honest-as-always Tillman would admit, "We were lucky to win."
It was maybe the meanest all-around day of Abraham's quite-blessed athletic life. Not only all the Mitchell beatings, but Clifton was the butterfingered victim when the Jaguars recovered their onside kickoff following that touchdown. He was on the field only because Jackie Harris was injured. Oh, one more ...
Long before all the 11th-hour theatrics, Abraham made a wonderful special-teams move on a Reggie Roby punt, getting himself in all-alone position to down it inside the Jaguars 5. But Clifton would muff the football, allowing it to skitter into the end zone for a touchback.
Nonetheless, Tampa Bay did win. Nonetheless, the Bucs are 6-5, tied for second place in the NFC Central, one game behind Green Bay with the Packers next up on the icy late-November grass of Lambeau Field.
"It doesn't make me feel warm and gooey, seeing how we played defensively in the second half," Tillman said. "But, as some wise man once said, winning sure does beat losing. It'll make us feel better when we read the score in Monday morning's newspaper. It'll make our food taste better all week. As for being in Green Bay next Sunday, if we play like we did in the first half against Jacksonville, we can have a real chance to win. But if we play as we did in the second half, well, the Packers have one heckuva offense and they're going to score a lot of points."
Stayin' alive ... So now the Bucs have survived expansion Jacksonville, much as they barely survived against the expansion Carolina Panthers a few weeks ago. By whatever medley of highs and lows, sweets and sours, pros and cons, Tampa Bay does have a winning record after 11 games for the first time since 1979.
Maybe it's an omen that the Jags didn't come to Tampa Stadium and win. So far, Jacksonville (3-8) has won two road games, at Cleveland and at Houston. Both those cities are losing their pro football franchises, the Browns to Baltimore and the Oilers to Nashville. A trend was developing.
What do you think? Might it be that Jimmy Smith's feet landing out of the end zone on that Jags two-point conversion has helped save the Bucs for future Tampa Bay generations?
We'll take that, just as Rusty Tillman will take a lucky windup against those NFL babes from Duval County.
Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1995