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49ers spooked late by Cardinals, saved by Jimmy Garoppolo’s game of the season

© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers’ start to Thursday night’s game could not have gone worse. It began with a 41-yard run by the Cardinals’ newly-acquired Kenyan Drake, and a would-be third-down sack by Dee Ford was instead penalized for a horse collar tackle. Arizona finished that drive with a touchdown, and the 49ers failed to counter with points on their opener.

On the first play of that opening drive, Tevin Coleman was swallowed up for a one-yard gain. On that play, and far more important than the result, was an injury to starting tight end George Kittle. Chandler Jones’ helmet met Kittle’s knee, hyperextending his leg. Arik Armstead was also out for the first series for something that didn’t appear to be injury related.

After a pair of three-and-outs, the Halloween weirdness calmed down and Jimmy Garoppolo began to take control of the game.

Garoppolo razor-sharp

Garoppolo has been criticized with varying levels of reasonableness. His interceptions, some of which have been baffling, were the clear issue coming in. The criticism of his yardage, or lack of a big game, is more a result of the 49ers’ effectiveness on the ground.

Earlier this week, he was asked whether he was alright with not being the center of attention thanks to the running game.

“I’m alright with being undefeated,” Garoppolo said.

On Thursday, that running game was stifled by the Cardinals, and Garoppolo was provided with his first opportunity to take over a game. He made quick and incisive use of that chance, cutting through the Cardinals’ defense like a razor. He connected with Emmanuel Sanders, Kendrick Bourne, George Kittle and Dante Pettis for touchdowns (and had one dropped by Deebo Samuel).

Despite Kittle’s evident pain, he and Garoppolo connected repeatedly, though for the first time this season, they didn’t convert on a third down. Outside of that instance, and the two duds of first drives, Garoppolo was his usually dominant self on third downs.

The most impressive stat of Garoppolo’s night? Every single one of his touchdowns came on third or fourth down. After the opening two scoreless drives, he followed with a triplet of touchdowns to end the first half. He tied the game with a 30-yard pass and catch by Kittle, who threw a patented stiff arm en route to the end zone.

The next was seven-yard dart to Bourne, followed by the most defining drive of the game. With a 14-7 lead and four seconds remaining in the half, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury called a timeout which he’ll never forget. The 49ers went with a run up the middle that was shut out and would have ended the half with no timeouts remaining. Instead, Kingsbury’s last-second timeout saw the following happen:

His fourth touchdown of the day was a perfectly weighted ball to a wide open Pettis, a few plays after Samuel’s drop. That drop, however, was followed up with multiple impressive catches later in the game, followed by a devastating late drop with just under five minutes remaining. Garoppolo finished with the first four-touchdown game of his career and the first by a 49er since Collin Kaepernick in 2012.

If there’s any throw which exemplified the type of precision which Garoppolo played with, it wasn’t a touchdown. It was this inch-perfect throw to Sanders, which was in Sanders’ basket the moment he broke out of his route.

Garoppolo finished 28-of-37 with 317 yards and 4 TDs, with his receiving corps benefiting from the standout game. His defining moment came at the death (more on that below):

Emmanuel Sanders (who had a false start on the final drive, but otherwise outstanding): 7 receptions, 112 yards, 1 TD (with three third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion for the touchdown).

George Kittle (who was sidelined for much of the half): 6 receptions, 79 yards, 1 TD

Deebo Samuel (dropped a TD and another late drop): 4 receptions, 40 yards

Ross Dwelley (had the game-icing catch): 4 receptions, 29 yards

Dante Pettis: 1 reception, 21 yards, 1 TD

Kendrick Bourne: 1 reception, 7 yards, 1 TD

Defense shows struggles of quick turnaround

Aside from the Cardinals’ opening drive, the 49ers defense was tremendous in the first half. Such was not the case in the second half. Kyler Murray and Kingsbury dialed up an up-tempo approach that cut through the 49ers.

Their first possession of the second half was a seven-play, 83-yard drive which cut the deficit to 21-14. After Garoppolo connected with Pettis to make it a two-touchdown game, the Cardinals were forced to punt and settle for a field goal. With just over five minutes remaining and 28-17 deficit, it seemed like the Cardinals wouldn’t have enough time to mount a comeback.

Then in the blink of an eye, Danny Isabella went for an 88-yard touchdown thanks to a poor decision by Emmanuel Moseley and bad open-field tackling by Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward.

The clutch finish

When the 49ers needed him most (which was the whole game), Garoppolo was there. The Cardinals had three timeouts and more than five minutes to stop the 49ers and get the ball back to try and secure a game-tying field goal. Garoppolo was having none of it.

He was 11-of-17 on third downs and 1-of-1 on fourth down, with all of his touchdowns coming on either third or fourth down.

But it was that final drive in which he silenced any hint of doubt that he wasn’t the cause of the win. Eleven plays, 35 yards, game over. Following a loss of a yard on a rush by Matt Breida and a drop on a tough ball by Samuel, Garoppolo was faced with 3rd and 11 and giving the Cardinals the ball back with more than four minutes and two timeouts remaining.

Instead, he threaded the needle yet again to Sanders for a first down. After three running plays just barely got the 49ers another first down, Garoppolo was called upon again to take the game into his grasp.

Breida lost two yards, Coleman gained eight, and then Sanders picked up a brutal false start. With 3rd-and-9 remaining and Kittle on the sideline, Garoppolo connected with Ross Dwelley, who looked like a Kittle-lite, and clawed his way to a first down which iced the game. It may have lacked the same electricity of a game-winning touchdown drive, but make no mistake, that final drive secured the win, and it was of Garoppolo’s own doing.

With half the season now gone, the 49ers are an astounding 8-0 and have a mini bye week before facing the Seattle Seahawks. When the 49ers step back on the field, it will likely be with Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Kyle Juszczyk, Ahkello Witherspoon, and proof (not that they needed it) of a quarterback who can singlehandedly win them games.


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