25 Seasons of Panthers Football: Rosario's buzzer beater in 2008

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It was only one regular season game of many during quarterback Jake Delhomme's career. But considering the circumstances, no one could blame him for celebrating like he had just won a championship.

The game was the 2008 season opener at San Diego on September 7.

Delhomme was coming off surgery to repair torn ligaments in his throwing elbow, and the Panthers were coming off a 7-9 season. The Chargers, meanwhile, were the defending AFC West champions.

Delhomme felt good physically prior to the game.

"I needed that surgery so bad, because for a year and a half I had pain that really bothered me in the elbow. So I knew something was wrong," Delhomme said. "For me to have the surgery was a relief, more than anything else, because I didn't have the pain anymore. I didn't have that constant, everyday pain.

"So my arm felt great. But then again, I hadn't played since September of the year before. So the rust factor was a big thing for me. And San Diego, obviously, was a good team at the time."

The rust showed in the first half when Delhomme completed 11-of-24 passes for 170 yards, and drives repeatedly stalled deep in San Diego territory, forcing Carolina to settle for three John Kasay field goals and a 9-7 halftime advantage.

Still, the Panthers eventually scored a touchdown on a 31-yard fumble return by cornerback Chris Gamble and added a fourth Kasay field goal to take a 19-10 lead into the fourth quarter.

Then, suddenly, the Chargers offense erupted. In a span of four minutes and 18 seconds, quarterback Philip Rivers threw touchdowns to tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Vincent Jackson to give San Diego a 24-19 lead with just 2:27 left.

The way Delhomme figured it, that was just enough time.

"They came back late on us, and we had to make a drive. For me, it was just one of those five or six games in your career that you'll always remember," Delhomme said.

"We did not have (wide receiver) Steve Smith for that game, either. D.J Hackett and Dwayne Jarrett were in there playing (at wide receiver), and we had to make a comeback. And sure enough, we just went down the field on the last drive. No one panicked."

Starting at the Carolina 32-yard line and with one timeout, that sense of calm proved valuable. Delhomme directed the offense down the field slowly but surely, connecting with five different receivers with no play gaining more than 13 yards. The Panthers, fortunately, still had the timeout left when, on third-and-7 from the San Diego 20, Delhomme connected with wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad for six yards.

Carolina called timeout with just two seconds remaining, enough time for one last all-or-nothing play.

Delhomme thought he had a plan.

"I've got to be honest with you, I had predetermined before the snap that I was going to try to go to Dwayne Jarrett down the field on the left side, because Dwayne was a big guy and he was pretty fast, too," Delhomme said. "At the time, I grabbed him in the huddle and told him, 'Dwayne, just run by your guy and be ready.' I was going to try to hit him on one of those between-the-linebacker-and-safety deals."

View photos from Carolina's 12-4 season in 2008.

That is not what happened, however. Taking a shotgun snap and pump-faking once, Delhomme instead ended up finding little-known tight end Dante Rosario in the back of the end zone for the dramatic, game-winning touchdown. The touchdown highlighted a career day for Rosario, who produced seven catches for 96 yards - the most yards by a Panthers tight end since 2001.

"Well, the snap ended up being a little high, and I had to reach up with both hands to grab it - and I kind of momentarily lost my vision of the field," Delhomme said. "But the protection was great, and I was able to gather myself and watch, and I swear, Rosario and I just made eye contact. I was able to throw it up, and he jumped up and caught it."

Afterward, Delhomme was as stunned as the suddenly silenced San Diego crowd.

"I didn't know what to do. I think I ran around like Jim Valvano, looking for somebody to celebrate with," said Delhomme, referencing to the late North Carolina State basketball coach's reaction to the Wolfpack's upset of Houston in the 1983 NCAA National Championship.

No one could blame Delhomme. After a slow start, he completed 8-of-11 passes for 68 yards on the final drive and ended up 23-of-41 for 247 yards for the game, his first in nearly a full calendar year.

"It was great to have Jake back. Guys want to follow him," Rosario said.

And follow him they did, right to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title that season.

"I think that game, maybe even that one play, set the tone for the season," Delhomme said. "We had a couple of other comebacks later in the year. We just had a lot of confidence in those types of games that we could make something happen."

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