CHARLOTTE, N.C. - When Ike Hilliard was asked to explain his contribution to Tampa Bay's third consecutive lopsided victory, he offered the same stiff arm he used to exploit Carolina's overmatched secondary.
'I was the open guy tonight,' said the 11-year pro, who had been nursing a tender ankle. 'It could have easily been Joey Galloway making the plays, but today it just happened to be me.'
The 31-year-old former Gators standout set the tone early in Tampa Bay's 20-7 romp at Carolina, catching four passes for 46 yards in an opening drive capped by Jeff Garcia's 3-yard touchdown run.
After three quarters, Hilliard had seven receptions for 114 yards, almost personally outgaining the Panthers, who were limited to six first downs and 123 total yards while being dominated through 45 minutes.
'That was nice to see,' said second-year guard Davin Joseph. 'Ike Hilliard is still rolling.'
In posting his ninth career 100-yard game, and first since a 2003 effort as a member of the Giants, Hilliard continued developing his early-season chemistry with Garcia.
Hilliard caught 69 passes for 621 yards in his two previous seasons with the Bucs. Now he's on pace for 60 catches and 984 yards while helping Tampa Bay assume sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
'It felt good to be a part of it,' said Hilliard, whose big day was marred by a second-quarter fumble deep in Carolina territory. 'Jeff's getting time to go through his second and third options and I'm just trying to be accountable to my teammates.'
On the possession after his fumble, Hilliard burned the Panthers for a bobbled 56-yard catch that set up a field goal and a 17-0 halftime advantage.
'I'm a deep threat now,' Hilliard deadpanned after his longest reception in seven years. 'Jeff couldn't throw a more perfect ball ... and I almost screwed it up.'
Hilliard's bravura performance came on a day Galloway was blanked until catching a 7-yard flip in the fourth quarter.
'Ike did an outstanding job,' said Garcia, who hasn't thrown a pick this year in 90 pass attempts. 'Ike is just steady Ike. Here's a guy who really hasn't practiced much a lot lately because of his ankle, but mentally stays involved in the game. He did a great job of finding openings and getting down the middle of the field on the long ball. I really enjoy playing with Ike Hilliard - I have great confidence in him.'
Hilliard's energy and humility are proving inspiring to teammates. Even Tampa Bay's young defensive players couldn't help but feed off No. 19.
'I loved seeing what Ike did out there today,' said middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, credited with five stops and his third forced fumble of the year. 'He's catching passes all over the football field. That's Ike, that's ol' reliable.'