At one point it was a six-point ball game. The flags were waving high, a rare sellout crowd roared, and for a moment it appeared that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a real chance to take down a giant in the San Francisco 49ers.
Quarterback Mike Glennon had just hit tight end Tim Wright on a corner route for a 24-yard touchdown, chipping away at the 49ers’ lead, 20-14. On that drive, Glennon ran a no-huddle and went 8-of-9 for 89 yards.
Then out came quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who methodically drove the ball 77 yards on 17 plays, capping it off with a 21-yard field goal by kicker Phil Dawson. It shaved off 10 minutes and 27 seconds of clock and silenced the hometown crowd, aside from a large contingent of 49ers fans who made their presence known when it appeared this game was just about out-of-reach.
“They played keep away, which is what you worry about with that offensive football team, because they’re capable,” head coach Greg Schiano said after the game.
“The opportunity [was] there. All week, we talked about making it a fourth-quarter game – heavyweight fight, get it to the fourth quarter and find a way to win. That’s why it’s very disappointing for players and coaches alike; we felt like we had the opportunity and we let it go.”
There was still a small glimmer of hope when the Bucs regained possession with about four minutes and 30 seconds remaining and trailed 23-14. A botched attempt at a trick play on a kickoff return squandered it, with returner Eric Page fumbling the football and Kendall Hunter recovering it in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown.
Dawson sealed the win with a 35-yard field goal, giving San Francisco its tenth win of the season with a 33-14 effort.
“It was a called play,” Schiano said of Page’s bobble. “We were going to run a reverse if the opportunity presented itself the right way. It didn’t, yet we still ran it, but it’s okay. We made a mistake. Guys make mistakes sometimes.”
Except there were far too many in this one, including the decision to resort to gimmicks when luck was never on Tampa Bay’s side, even when things started to work in the Bucs’ favor.
The Bucs had gone three-and-out most of the day, finishing just 1 for 10 on third down conversions. The only other scoring drive was an 11-yard touchdown to Jackson thrown in traffic, making it a 17-7 game just before the half.
Prior to Jackson’s play, Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis full-speed with a 52-yard touchdown, with Davis slamming into the wall in the back of the end zone like a bullet, and safety Mark Barron trailing behind. Davis finished with five catches for 79 receiving yards and a touchdown.
The 49ers’ other touchdown came on their very first possession, with Kaepernick escaping pressure, rolling to his right and finding wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who put the moves on rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks for a 4-yard touchdown. On that drive, the 49ers converted twice on third down, including a 17-yard scramble from Kaepernick on third-and-8.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh marveled at the way his young quarterback put the game on his shoulders and delivered.
“Some of those escapes from the pocket, you know, where guys [are] grabbing at him, the shoulders, the legs, just kicking out of tackles and picking up first downs three, four and five times in the game, and then some incredible out-of-the-pocket throws and first down conversions. One time he was sprinting to his right and sprinting northwest back to his own goal line and just threw a laser 35 yards, got a first down. He did that two or three times in the ballgame. Those are — who makes those plays? Who can make those plays?”
He finished with 19 of 29 for 203 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He added 39 rushing yards on seven carries.
“Kaepernick really put on his cape. A couple of those conversions were…I don’t know how else to describe them. There’s not a lot of people that can make those types of plays that he was making. I mean, make them with his feet and make them with his arm, make them with his head,” Harbaugh added.
One of those plays was on third-and-12 and kept that fourth-quarter drive alive.
“It was all on us, man. We got him out of the pocket. Had a guy chasing him and then he slipped up out of a tackle,” linebacker Lavonte David said. “He’s a great athlete. I think that long stride kind of helped him out and made a great throw on the run. You just got to take your hat off to him.”
Kaepernick was sacked twice by Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn, with McCoy registering his eighth sack of the season. Dekoda Watson led the team with nine solo tackles and 11 combined.
Running back Frank Gore, another dangerous weapon for the Niners, rushed for 86 yards on 22 carries, while Bucs running back Bobby Rainey mustered just 27 yards on 11 carries.
Glennon finished 18 of 34 for 179 passing yards two touchdowns and a fourth-quarter interception just after the two-minute warning. He was sacked four times, with two takedowns coming from Aldon Smith.
“We have to get better,” Schiano said. “We’re just not performing at a consistent enough level now. It’s not from a lack of effort, a lack of work, a lack of any of that stuff. These guys are laying it on the line, coaches and players alike. We’re just not getting the results that we want all the time.”
The Niners outgained the Bucs 376 to 183 in total yards, including 227 to 98 in the first half … Tim Wright’s touchdown catch was his fourth of the season, setting a new franchise record for the most touchdown catches by a rookie tight end. He led the Bucs with seven catches for 82 receiving yards … With his eighth sack of the season, Gerald McCoy moved to eighth in franchise single season sack records among defensive tackles. He is currently tied for third in the league in sacks among players at that position … With his 86 rushing yards, Frank Gore reached the 1,000-yard mark for the seventh time in his nine-year career … The Bucs are currently 0-4 this year (if you count Cam Newton twice) against quarterbacks with six or more rushing attempts and 30 or more rushing yards per game … The Niners’ fourth-straight win improved their record to 10-4 but did not clinch a playoff spot due to the Arizona Cardinals’ win over the Tennessee Titans. They can clinch a playoff spot next week if they beat the Atlanta Falcons or if the Arizona Cardinals lose to the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday … With Sunday’s win, San Francisco’s all-time regular season record against Tampa Bay improves to 17-4.