Ike Hilliard never asks for the football on third down. It just always seems to end up in his hands.
Just like Sunday, as Hilliard’s 28-yard grab on third down kept Tampa Bay’s two-minute drill alive and helped lead to the Buccaneers’ 13-10 victory over Tennessee at Raymond James Stadium.
Hilliard actually made two key catches on that drive. The second, a 10-yarder to the Titans 25-yard line, set up Matt Bryant’s 43-yard game winner with 11 seconds left.
But his first catch kept the drive alive.
“He has a knack for making those kind of plays,” Bucs receiver Joey Galloway said. “That’s his specialty, and today he came up big for us.”
Several Buccaneers (4-2) players said Sunday’s win was a big one. Coming off the Indianapolis loss, Hilliard said, players wanted to get that taste of losing out of their mouths. Some consider Tennessee a possible challenger to Indianapolis and New England in the AFC, so it became, as quarterback Jeff Garcia said, a “gut-check” game.
And, of course, the Buccaneers were coming off losing a starting running back for the second straight week and started their third-string back, Earnest Graham.
“Any way we can win, we’ll take it,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said.
In many respects, the win wasn’t pretty. The running game managed just 30 yards against the No. 3 run defense in the NFL in the Titans. The Bucs were unable to sustain drives all day, putting the defense in, as Garcia put it, “terrible situations.” The fact that the Bucs only gave up 10 points proved valuable to the offense.
But the Titans were able to tie the game with 1:24 left, as LenDale White scored from 2 yards out to make it 10-10. So the next drive — a two-minute drill, no less — was Tampa Bay’s biggest possession of the game. The Buccaneers wanted to score, but they also didn’t want to give the ball right back to the Titans.
And after two Garcia incompletions, it looked like that’s exactly what would happen.
“That was a critical third down because we would have punted and given them time to work with on the clock,” Garcia said.
Hilliard, a former first-round pick of the New York Giants, set up wide left of Garcia on 3rd-and-10. The play was actually designed to go to either Galloway — whose 69-yard touchdown catch was the only touchdown of the game for the Bucs — or Michael Clayton on the opposite side. Hilliard was the third option.
But Garcia quickly found Galloway and Clayton covered, as the Titans dropped back into coverage. But in doing so, the Titans’ linebackers left the middle open for Hilliard.
“I was just working a simple cross, trying to find the soft part of the zone,” Hilliard said.
Garcia found Hilliard coming across and the catch itself was enough for the first down. But as Hilliard turned and started toward the sideline, he received two sensational blocks from wide receiver Michael Clayton and fullback B.J. Askew, enabling him to work farther upfield to the Bucs 48 for a 28-yard gain.
Hilliard finished the day with four catches for 59 yards. It prompted Gruden to wonder aloud afterward about the fuss made over Clayton and Maurice Stovall when they competed for the No. 2 job in training camp, while Hilliard received none for a job he now owns.
“I know Jeff feels very comfortable with him and Ike Hilliard is a specialist in those kinds of situations and that’s one of the reasons why we throw to him,” Gruden said.
Two plays later, Garcia and Galloway moved the chains with a 14-yard pass in the middle of the field, prompting the Bucs to take their final time out with 29 seconds left. To set up the field goal, Garcia worked the flat to Hilliard, who turned the short pass into a 10-yard gain and, more importantly, ran out of bounds to stop the clock with 22 seconds.
On a tough day against a tough Titans defense, the veterans were the ones to step up on offense. Garcia threw for 274 yards and no interceptions. Galloway had four catches for 97 yards, including the 69-yard TD grab.
And there was Hilliard. Before that final drive, after the Titans tied the game, Garcia said, no one was thinking about overtime.
“There wasn’t any disappointment on that sideline after they (Tennessee) scored,” Garcia said. “Our defense had worked their tails off all game long and they were put in difficult situations all day long. It was time for us as an offense to step up and make something happen.”
And it started with Ike.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.