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  1. Bucs

Bucs-Dolphins: How rookies like O.J. Howard carried the day

Bucs tight end O.J. Howard (80) celebrates a touchdown catch with teammates during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

MIAMI GARDENS — From start to finish, the Bucs' wobbly 30-20 win over the Dolphins on Sunday was made possible by game-changing plays made by rookies.

The Bucs' top three picks in this year's draft — tight end O.J. Howard, safety Justin Evans and receiver Chris Godwin — continue to grow into larger roles. Sunday was a showcase for their precocious ability to contribute in the clutch.

"Our rookie class is doing fine," coach Dirk Koetter said after they earned the first NFL road win. "O.J. could have had a monster game today. He got off to a fast start ... Chris Godwin, that was very clutch at the end ... and Justin Evans, that's another rookie that I think is doing a good job."

Evans set the tone for a game in which the Bucs forced five takeaways, spoiling the Dolphins' opening drive by intercepting Jay Cutler in the end zone. The Dolphins' 69-yard drive reached third down from the 9-yard line, but Evans made a leaping grab for his second career interception. The other came against Tom Brady and the Patriots.

"Once we start it off, we feed off energy," Evans said of the turnover spree. "I think there was a little of that. One turnover, got another one and we're feeding off that and we're trying to get more and more."

Howard, who turned 23 on Saturday, gave the Bucs a spark on their second drive, catching passes for 22 and 24 yards to set up a field goal. Ryan Fitzpatrick's 6-yard touchdown pass to Howard — the Bucs' first touchdown in the first half in six games — made it 13-7. Howard also had a 25-yard touchdown catch called back by penalty.

"Coach dialed up some great plays for those coverage," said Howard, now tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions. "Fitz found me. I made the most of my opportunities."

And when the Dolphins rallied from a 13-point deficit to tie the game with three minutes left, Godwin stepped up. His two huge catches, for 14 and 24 yards, set up Patrick Murray's go-ahead field goal with four seconds left.

The oldest player on the Bucs' offense —- 34-year-old Fitzpatrick — trusted in the youngest, Godwin, still only 21.

"We have a ton of veterans around, and I do the best I can to be a sponge and draw on those guys when I can," Godwin said.

Fitzpatrick said the rookies might not be his first read on a play, but he knows if he gives them a chance to make a play, they can.

"I have supreme confidence that he's going to make that play and he knows that he's going to get that ball," Fitzpatrick said. "I just think we have a lot of confidence within that room with those guys and they're doing a good job."

Contact Greg Auman at and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

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