NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Reggie Bush made his first NFL touchdown worth the wait.

The rookie running back – drafted with immense fanfare after winning the Heisman Trophy – brought back a critical punt return 65 yards for a touchdown with under five minutes remaining to lift the New Orleans Saints to a 24-21 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Bush escaped Tampa Bay’s initial pursuit by scampering across the field to his right, then turning on the jets as he cut upfield, leaving several defenders grasping for air as the packed crowd erupted in the Louisiana Superdome.

The celebration was interrupted briefly while referees sorted out a flag that was 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 sidelines.

The runback kept the Saints (4-1) atop the NFC South while spoiling a valiant effort by winless Tampa Bay (0-4).

Joey Galloway had been the Bucs’ top receiver on the day, but his penalty for setting a pick on a Saints defender wiped out long pass to Ike Hilliard that would have set up a first-and-goal in the final minutes. The drive stalled after that, and the Saints were able to run the clock down to under 30 seconds before giving the ball back to the Buccaneers.

Bruce Gradkowski, pressed into service because of Chris Simms’ ruptured spleen, made only one costly mistake when he fumbled 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 over the top that set up Mike Alstott’s 1-yard touchdown run. His 3-yard touchdown pass to Alex Smith on third-down gave Tampa Bay a 21-17 lead with about 10 minutes to go.

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 also had a 24-yard touchdown run that required him to dance out of trouble in the backfield and slip tacklers across the line of scrimmage.

He had 117 yards rushing in the first half and finished with 123.

Drew Brees was 21-of-33 for 171 yards and one touchdown, a key third-down toss to tight end Ernie Conwell from 9 yards. The play gave the Saints a 17-7 lead in the third quarter.

But Tampa Bay roared back behind big plays from Gradkowski and the running game. Carnell “Cadillac” Williams had 111 yards rushing on 20 carries. His 34-yard carry to the New Orleans 6 set up the Buccaneers’ final touchdown.

Tampa Bay, desperate to win before the playoffs get out of reach, was better statistically than New Orleans. The Bucs ran for 187 yards and passed for 225, compared to 143 yards rushing and 171 yards passing for New Orleans. The difference proved to be Gradkowski’s fumble and Bush’s punt return.

AP-ES-10-08-06 1714EDT

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