49ers fumble away high-scoring battle

SANTA CLARA — The 49ers outscored San Diego 28-7 in the first half on Saturday, but it was all downhill from there.

The Chargers answered by outscoring the 49ers by the same score in the second half, tying the game with 29 seconds remaining and kicking a field goal in overtime to hand San Francisco a heartbreaking 38-35 loss at Levi’s Stadium.

A Quinton Patton fumble after a long gain on a reverse in overtime gave San Diego possession, and set up the Chargers for a 40-yard game winning field goal from Nick Novak.

After an up-and-down game where he threw three ugly interceptions, Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers redeemed himself by driving the visitors down the field on a 14-play, 80-yard drive at the end of the fourth quarter, culminating in an 11-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Floyd, his fourth score of the evening.

Photos by Scot Tucker and Thomas Mendoza/SFBay

The drive included two huge fourth down completions, the latter of which — to Dontrelle Inman with 54 seconds left — got the ball to the San Francisco 9-yard line.

It was a tale of two halves for Rivers, who threw two baffling interceptions early, but led four scoring drives in the fourth quarter and overtime. Rivers said the Chargers just got going in the second half:

“In the first half we didn’t execute and obviously I threw a couple bad, bad, bad balls … I think at halftime I heard the defensive guys talking and on offense, we just said, ‘Look, we don’t know if we can win the game or not, but we’re going to fight like crazy. That’s just what we do and who we are. We’re going to fight like crazy and see what happens.'”

Frank Gore ran for a season high 129 yards in the first half, and finished with 158. Colin Kaepernick ran for 151, including an incredible 90-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that looked like the game’s crucial score after San Diego cut the lead to seven with two quick touchdowns.

Harbaugh, as is customary, was a man of few words following the game:

“As a team, we didn’t finish it. Up 28-7 at one point, but guys were fighting. … Doesn’t feel like a lot to say right now. Tough loss.”

Overall the 49ers gained 355 yards on the ground, their most in a single game this season.

Two San Diego scores in a little over two minutes late in the third quarter changed the course of the game. After San Francisco stalled on their first two second half possessions, Rivers drove San Diego down the field at tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gates.

On the following possession, Dwight Freeney strip-sacked Kaepernick, and San Diego defensive end Corey Liuget recovered in the end zone to make it a one score game.

It was the second fumble of what would be three costly turnovers from San Francisco, with the first coming when Bruce Miller coughed up the ball inside the San Diego five yard line in the first half.

Kaepernick said those plays were the difference:

“We have three turnovers..We have a fumble on the goal line, we have a fumble that ends up in the end zone for a touchdown and we have a fumble in overtime. That’s at least a 14 point swing right there. You can’t have that if you want to win games.”

Kaepernick made an incredible play on the next possession. After being flushed from the pocket deep in 49er territory, Kaepernick burst through the middle, broke two tackles, put a nasty juke on Chargers safety Eric Weddle and scampered 90 yards to pay dirt.

The play goes down as second longest rushing touchdown in 49er history, behind Garrison Hearst‘s 96-yard overtime run against the Jets in 1998.

 

Kaepernick said he and Weddle joked about it after the game:

“He told me don’t do it again.”

The touchdown appeared to put the 49ers back in the driver’s seat after a near implosion (Gore said he thought it was over following Kap’s score) but the offense continued to stall and was forced to punt on two consecutive series.

Rivers then drove the Chargers down the field, this time for 85 yards, and hit a wide open Antonio Gates for the second time on a 21-yard touchdown with five minutes remaining.

On their next possession, the Niners again failed to get a first down and burned less than two minutes off the clock. Kaepernick made a questionable decision running out of bounds in an attempt to get the first down.

Rivers and San Diego reclaimed possession and somehow managed to run 14 plays in just over three minutes, culminating in the Floyd touchdown on a routine slant route, sending the game into overtime tied at 35.

After winning the overtime coin toss, it looked like San Francisco had a chance to save themselves from yet another crushing disappointment in a season rife with them.

Yet there would be no respite, as Weddle ruined a 30-yard gain by Quinton Patton, stripping the ball with San Diego recovering on their own 38. Patton blamed himself for not holding the ball correctly:

“I was just trying to make a play. They chose to give me the ball and I wanted to make a play. … It hurt. But, that’s football. It happens. I’ll do better next time.”

It was deja vu with the ball back in Rivers hands, as the Chargers continued their no-huddle shotgun formation and drove down to the San Francisco 22. Nick Novak put the nail in the coffin, drilling a 40-yard field goal to give San Diego the win and and keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

San Francisco, and especially Frank Gore, were utterly dominant in the first half. The 49ers’ all-time leading rusher entered Saturday’s game after sitting out most of the week recovering from a concussion suffered against Seattle.

The 10-year-veteran didn’t take long to work out the kinks, breaking three tackles on a 55-yard scamper into the end zone the fourth play from scrimmage.

The run was not only the longest for Gore in 2014, but his longest carry since 2011.  Gore averaged only two yards after contact in 2014 going into Saturday , but like the downhill force of yesteryear, ran through San Diego defenders all evening.

Gore, always humble, praised his offensive line:

“My whole offensive line was there. All year, we missed one guy here, one guy there. I think that is what the problem has been. My O-line dominated their D-line tonight.”

The 49ers went 76 yards in a 1:46 on their opening drive, and set the tone for a first-half blowout in which they scored 28 points, never punted and had two scoring opportunities nixed due to mental errors.

In addition to Miller’s fumble, the second gaff came on a Joe Staley holding penalty late in the first quarter, eliminating a 21-yard strike from Kaepernick to Boldin.

The Niners also had a long Vernon Davis third quarter touchdown called back due to a cut block on the offensive line.

San Francisco would bounce back however, eventually scoring on the drive when Kaepernick hit Bruce Ellington on an eight yard out to give San Francisco a two touchdown lead with 13:36 left in the second quarter.

The rookie receiver had a breakout game for San Francisco, scoring again on a one-yard end around to end the first half, and averaged more than 23 yards returning kicks and more than 11 on punts.

Kaepernick had a solid if unspectacular evening through the air, going 15 for 24 for 114 yards and one touchdown.

Rivers finished 33 for 54 with four touchdowns and three picks.

The second of which put San Francisco up 21-0 only 20 minutes into the game, when Rivers didn’t see 49er safety Antoine Bethea lurking underneath on a crossing route. The eight year veteran made his first house call of the season, returning the ball 49-yards for a score. It’s the third defensive touchdown for the Niners all year.

Rivers would redeem himself on San Diego’s next possession, when he laid a perfect ball to Eddie Royal in between two San Francisco defenders, for a 15-yard touchdown, avoiding a first half shutout.

Notes

Eric Reid left the game in the second quarter with a concussion. The second-year pro suffered two last season. … Aldon Smith also suffered a head injury in the second half but returned to action.