According to the Bucs' Twitter Feed this is the first time since 2002 a team started 7 rookies and won, and it was also the first time since that year that the Bucs have beaten the Panthers twice in one season. With that many rookies starting it shouldn't be a surprise that this was a penalty-filled game, but 10 penalties for 80 yards and 2 lost fumbles would stop most teams from winning. But not this time, as the Bucs easily outscored the inept Panthers. Josh Freeman produced a great stat line, going 18/24 for 241 yards and 2 TDs, even though he had a tendency to throw some balls in double coverage. Kellen Winslow had his best game of the season, making some great catches for 61 yards and a TD. Mike Williams continued his strong rookie campaign with 4 catches for 68 yards, Benn had 2 catches for 21 yards with a TD and even blocking tight end John Gilmore joined in with 3 catches for 52 yards. The running backs had a great day to complement the passing offense as well: Legarrette Blount gained 91 yards and a TD on 19 plays, while Cadillac Williams finally had a good day and got 62 yards and a TD on 5 carries.
The game started out very well for the Bucs. After allowing a first down, Gerald McCoy forced a fumble from Mike Goodson and Sean Jones recovered to allow the Bucs to take over at the Panthers' 47-yard line. Four plays later Josh Freeman found Arrelious Benn for his second career touchdown. After the Panthers got the ball back they managed to drive to the edge of field goal range before punting, pinning the Bucs back inside their own 10-yard line. A 3-and-out was then followed by a poor 37-yard punt, but the Bucs managed to hold the Panthers to a field goal.
Spurlock returned the kickoff to just the 12-yard line, and that would foreshadow a very poor special teams day that included a muffed punt and only one kickoff return beyond the 20-yard line. But that 12-yard return was followed by a dominant drive. Starting the drive out with a 13-yard run by Josh Johnson out of a Wildcat play, Blount then took over and ran for 61 yards on 4 consecutive carries capping the drive off with a spectacular flying, spinning, somersaulting touchdown.
On the ensuing Panthers possession the Bucs forced a 3-and-out, but on the following punt Elbert Mack was blocked into the ball, which allowed the Panthers to recover the ball inside Bucs territory. Elbert Mack was the goat of the game on the Bucs side, as the Panthers repeatedly went after him in the passing game and he couldn't stop them. The Panthers wouldn't waste this opportunity for points and gained 48 yards on 6 plays, capping it off with a 2-yard Mike Vaughan TD run. That was the only time the Panthers managed to get into the endzone.
After exchanging two 3-and-outs, the Bucs got the ball back on their own 35-yard line. They then produced a measured 9-play, 75-yard drive which ended on a spectacular 20-yard Kellen Winslow catch in double coverage. The Panthers went 3-and-out after that, and the Bucs went into the half in control and leading 21-10 despite some sloppy play. The Bucs would never relinquish this lead, as the second half was dominated by the Bucs.
The third quarter didn't start out that way, though. The first drive ended on the third play, as Josh Freeman and Legarrette Blount botched a handoff and the Panthers recovered at the Carolina 48-yard line. The Bucs defense stepped it up and forced a 3-and-out, preventing the Panthers from capitalizing on their excellent field position. On their next drive the Bucs flipped field position, driving to their own 44-yard line and punting the ball to the Panthers' 21-yard line. However, Aqib Talib would allow the only long completion to Steve Smith of the afternoon. That allowed the Panthers to drive down to the 10-yard line, but the Bucs defense held and the Panthers were forced to kick a field goal. The Bucs answered quickly with a 6-minute, 66-yard drive culminating in a 32-yard Connor Barth field goal.
Forcing another punt on the next Panthers possession the defense continued their excellent second half, and the offense would reward their play with another touchdown drive. Starting on their own 37-yard line, the Bucs drove down to the Caroline 45-yard line. On 3rd&11 from that spot, they ran a shotgun draw to Cadillac Williams, who promptly zigged and zagged through the opposing defense and walked across the goalline for the game-clinching touchdown.
That just left the Panthers with 2:51 and no timeouts to score 2TDs and a 2-point conversion. The Bucs defense then allowed the Panthers to drive down to the 1-yard line after 2 questionable penalties were called on them for Unnecessary Roughness and Pass Interference. However the Bucs defense held up on the goal line, and on the final 4th down play an Unnecessary Roughness penalty against Steve Smith gave the Bucs enough room to kneel out the game.
Despite a lack of big plays on defense and a few offensive and special teams mishaps handing the Panthers great field position, the Panthers were held to just 16 points and 300 net yards on offense. Both the offense and the defense were clearly the best sides on the field, and even with the sloppy play this was probably the most dominant Bucs win in 2 years.
And with this win, the Bucs are now in the middle of a playoff race. Next stop: San Francisco.