NEW ORLEANS (Oct. 8, 2006) -- With a few waves, Reggie Bush beckoned the crowd to its feet as he awaited a critical punt. Soon, he would have all of them in ecstasy.
Shut out of the end zone in his first four games as a pro, Bush took the punt 65 yards with under five minutes to lift the New Orleans Saints to a 24-21 victory over Tampa Bay.
Bush escaped the Buccaneers' initial pursuit by scampering across the field to his right, then accelerating quickly as he cut upfield, leaving several defenders grasping for air as bedlam erupted in the Louisiana Superdome. He pointed at the fans in the end-zone seats as he scored.
"When you see Reggie take those high steps, you know he's bound to make something happen," Saints defensive end Charles Grant said. "I knew he was gone."
The celebration was interrupted briefly while referees sorted out a flag thrown against the Buccaneers, then fans jubilantly chanted "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" as the score was made official. Bush was hugged by numerous teammates as he made his way back to the sideline.
While it was only his fifth game as a pro, his first touchdown seemed a long time coming for a player drafted with immense fanfare after winning the Heisman Trophy at USC. After all, rookie receiver Marques Colston, drafted in the seventh round and making millions of dollars less, already had three scores.
"Once I turned that corner I was just trying to turn on the jets," Bush said. "It was so wide open the slowest guy in the world probably could have scored that touchdown. The monkey's off my back now."
Peppered with questions recently about whether he was frustrated or pressing, Bush responded he did not care about scoring as long as the surprising Saints, now 4-1 and atop the NFC South, kept winning. They may not have beaten Tampa Bay if not for him.
The runback spoiled a valiant effort by winless Tampa Bay (0-4), which rallied from a 10-point deficit to take the lead in the second half.
"I tip my hat to Reggie Bush," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "He lived up to his expectations today. Shame on him."
Tampa Bay might have regained the lead if not for an untimely penalty that often goes uncalled.
Joey Galloway, the Bucs' top receiver on the day, was flagged for setting a pick on defensive back Jason Craft, wiping out a long pass to Ike Hilliard that would have set up a first-and-goal. The drive stalled and the Saints ran the clock down to under 30 seconds before giving the ball back to the Buccaneers.
Craft had seen the Bucs get away with a similar pick earlier in the game and specifically asked the referees to look for it. As soon as he ran into Galloway and lost track of Hilliard, Craft turned to the referee with his hand out.
"Before I knew it I just got cracked and I'm looking for a flag," Craft said. "Luckily, the ref was watching out for it ... because I couldn't do anything about it. It was over with for me."
Gruden was seething with a scrunched face and spittle-spewing shouts of anger immediately after the call. He was more diplomatic after the game.
"I couldn't see it from where I was," Gruden said. "It's a play we've used a lot in certain situations. We'll see the tape. All I can say is that it's unfortunate."
Bucs quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, pressed into service because of Chris Simms ' ruptured spleen, made only one costly mistake, fumbling while being sacked near his 20-yard line -- a turnover that led to a New Orleans touchdown.
Otherwise, he hardly looked like a rookie making his first NFL start on hostile ground.
He completed 20 of 31 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. He hooked up with Galloway four times for 110 yards, once for an 18-yard TD and once on a 52-yard pass that set up Mike Alstott 's 1-yard touchdown run.
"There is a lot of promise in that young guy. He played his brains out," Gruden said. "I like everything about him."
"It's a tough one to swallow," Gradkowski said. "There's a lot of good that came out of this game. Guys made great plays, the receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen were blocking their butts off ... running the ball well."
Deuce McAllister helped the Saints take a 10-7 lead into the half with a tackler-shedding, 57-yard carry that set up a field goal. He added a 24-yard touchdown run, had 117 yards rushing in the first half and finished with 123.
But Tampa Bay roared back behind big plays from Gradkowski and the running game. Cadillac Williams had 111 yards rushing on 20 carries. His 34-yard carry to the New Orleans 6 set up the Buccaneers' final touchdown.
Saints receiver Devery Henderson was inactive despite practicing for several days this week. He also missed the Saints' previous game with a sore shoulder. ... Conwell's touchdown catch was his first since the third week of the 2005 season at Minnesota. ... Saints safety Roman Harper hurt his left knee.