Shaun Hill improved to 8-3 as a starting quarterback thanks to his engineering of a 15-play, 80-yard fourth quarter touchdown drive that supplied the go-ahead score in the 49ers 20-16 Sunday road victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Hill found Frank Gore on a swing route in the right flat for a 3-yard touchdown pass that ended up being the game's deciding points. Gore walked into the end zone untouched as Hill found him immediately on a third-and-three from the Cardinals 3-yard line.
On the game's deciding drive, Hill completed four passes to tight end Vernon Davis that helped elapse 7:26 off the clock. Hill finished the game 18-of-31 for 209 yards with one touchdown pass.
Although they came into the game as the lesser billed of the two offenses, the 49ers came through when it mattered most. For the game, the Cardinals outgained the 49ers in total yards 299-203, but Hill's fourth quarter drive provided all the yards the 49ers needed to be victorious.
"For what Arizona was doing, they decided they were going to blitz and stunt, I was proud of the fact that Shaun hill was able to lead a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter when you had to have it," head coach Mike Singletary said. "I thought he did a great job."
Singletary's team carried out their head coach's mission by competing on every play with the Cardinals. The 49ers committed to the run throughout the game, rushing 25 times for only 21 yards. And although they were unable to break long runs on the ground, the 49ers defensive line made sure the Cardinals did not either, holding them to 40 yards on 17 carries.
"We just wanted to come out and do some of the things that we developed in training camp our identity, physical, tough, fast, good football," linebacker Takeo Spikes said.
Both team's sputtering offensive play on opening day didn't bother Singletary. He enjoyed what he saw out of his players.
"It was an ugly game but it was beautiful for us," he said illustrating the value he puts on other aspects of the game. "If you can't see the character on both sides of the field then you missed the whole purpose of the game."
The beauty of the game truly was the fourth quarter touchdown drive and the 49ers defensive performance on Arizona's ensuing drives.
Defensive end Justin Smith twice ended Arizona's hopes by pressuring Kurt Warner on two different occasions. Smith took part in stopping the Cardinals chance to respond to Gore's touchdown catch. When the 49ers could not pick up a first down to run out the clock, Smith single-handedly ended the game for Arizona.
Warner, who finished the game 26-of-44 for 288 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions, fumbled the ball as he was sacked by Smith on the game's final play. Smith and the 49ers pass rush enjoyed a successful first game, sacking Warner three times.
Prior to Gore's game-deciding touchdown, the 49ers offense settled for field goals on most drives or would go three-and-out.
Gore scored the 49ers first touchdown of the game at the end of the second quarter on a 6-yard touchdown run up the middle. It was the first time in his 60 career games played that he'd score a rushing and receiving touchdown in the same game.
"We knew coming in that their No. 1 focus was to take away our run," Singletary said. "But we felt it was necessary to stay with it, keep pounding it and stay the course."
The 49ers took a 13-6 lead into the half thanks to a pair of interceptions caused by defensive pressure up front. Joe Staley dropped back into coverage and picked off a deep Warner pass over the middle in the first quarter. Cornerback Nate Clements provided the other interception later in the first half, when outside linebacker Manny Lawson hit Warner as he was throwing. Clements happened to be in the area and came up with the interception.
Both turnovers didn't result in points for the 49ers offense, but it did keep the Cardinals offense from getting into rhythm.
Penalties also contributed to the lack of fluidity in Arizona's offense. The Cardinals committed 12 penalties for 82 yards.
"We started moving it, and then something would take us back and we were never really to ever overcome it," Warner said after the game.
The 49ers were able to limit Warner's options in the passing game by holding his star receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin to six catches for 71 yards and two catches for 19 yards, respectively.
As a result, second-year Cardinals running back Tim Hightower had a career-high 12 catches for 121 yards.
"From the pressure, I just had to dump it off to Tim," Warner said. "Sometimes it was the only thing open, sometimes it was the quickest thing open."
The 49ers allowed the Cardinals to complete short passes rather than allow big gains to Fitzgerald and Boldin. The strategy paid off.
"It's a big win for us," Spikes said. "Any win is a big win. But this puts us in a good spot to start the season and we have to start getting ready for next week. We're excited to leave here 1-0."