TAMPA, Fla. Quinn Gray slept well the night before his first NFL start. When he found out Jacksonville quarterback coach Mike Shula did the same, he felt even better.
"If he didn't get any sleep, I probably would have been like: 'Oh, here we go,"' the seldom-used backup said after helping the Jaguars rebound from a tough loss and beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-23 on Sunday.
"For some reason I was able to be comfortable. First of all, I knew we were going to run the ball a lot. That was comforting. But at the same time, when my number was called, I was able to deliver a little bit."
With Gray replacing injured David Garrard, the Jaguars put their trust in a vibrant running game and sturdy defense that forced three turnovers and scored a touchdown to help the inexperienced quarterback.
Although the plan didn't work to perfection, it was effective enough to bolster the Jaguars' belief that Gray can help the team stay afloat while Garrard is sidelined up to a month with a sprained left ankle.
"Obviously we did things to minimize the burden that was going to be placed on him, knew that we wanted to play to our defense and run the ball," Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said, adding that the best thing about Gray's performance is "he's 1-0."
The fourth-year pro overthrew open receivers most of the game but made several key completions when his team needed them most, including an 8-yard touchdown throw to Matt Jones that put the Jaguars (5-2) ahead for good with 11:37 to go.
The Jacksonville defense, which ended Jeff Garcia's long streak of consecutive passing attempts without an interception, made the slender lead stand by forcing two punts and intercepting Garcia for a third time.
Gray was 7-of-16 for 100 yards but did not throw an interception. One of his biggest plays came in the third quarter when he fumbled in his own end zone but recovered and crawled out to the 1-yard line to avoid a safety.
"They don't trust their quarterback to throw the football. We knew that," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said.
"It was on us to stop the run. Those were going to be our big plays. At times it was good enough, at times it wasn't. Two drives in particular, they just ran it down our throat, and that's what we can't do in a situation like this."
Garcia threw a 58-yard TD pass to Joey Galloway to help Tampa Bay (4-4) overcome a 17-3 deficit. Michael Bennett's 19-yard TD run put the Bucs ahead 20-17, and Matt Bryant's third field goal made it 23-17 before Gray led an eight-play, 53-yard drive that Jones finished with a one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone.
Garcia, who had not thrown an interception in Tampa Bay's first seven games, had a streak of 217 consecutive passes without a pick stopped when Aaron Glenn stepped in front of a sideline throw intended for Galloway. He returned it 28 yards for a second-quarter TD.
Gray's inexperience showed when he replaced Garrard during last Monday night's 29-7 loss to Super Bowl champion Indianapolis. He threw two interceptions and was limited to 56 yards passing, however the Jaguars were confident he would play better with five days to prepare for Tampa Bay.
The Bucs defense has a history of feasting on young quarterbacks, a group that's included Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper and J.P. Losman among others over the past 12 seasons under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Gray is 28 years old, but before Sunday had only gotten into five games over four NFL seasons.
Jacksonville was determined to take the pressure off him by feeding the Bucs a steady diet of running backs Fred Taylor, LaBrandon Toefield and Maurice Jones-Drew, who played despite being limited in practice all week after injuring his left knee against the Colts.
The Jaguars opened the game by running on 15 of their first 16 offensive plays, the lone pass a middle screen that Jones-Drew turned into a 15-yard gain to the Tampa Bay 1. Toefield scored on the next play for a 7-3 lead.
John Carney's 41-yard field goal made it 10-3 midway through the second quarter, and it looked like Jacksonville's game plan had a real good chance of succeeding when Glenn made an excellent break on his interception and raced to the end zone untouched to put the Jaguars up by two touchdowns.
"He just did a great job of jumping the route," Garcia said.
Jacksonville was outgained 385 yards to 219, but was able to help Gray by rushing for 133 yards. Taylor had 68 yards on 24 carries, Jones-Drew gained 48 on 10 attempts and Toefield ran six times for 12 yards.
Garcia was 19-of-41 for 267 yards and was sacked twice. The Bucs, who have lost three of four, fell for the second straight week despite compiling a huge advantage in yardage. They outgained Detroit 422-278 the previous game.