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Slipper fits only 49ers

Smith, San Francisco rally late to beat Leinart, Arizona, 20-17, in ragged game between teams with high hopes and young quarterbacks.

September 11, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Two promising young quarterbacks. Two teams hoping to be the surprise of this NFL season. And an unusually late kickoff.

Monday night's game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers had all the makings of a Cinderella story.

By the close of an uneven if not sloppy evening, neither team looked especially primed for the ball, but at least the 49ers had taken a step in the right direction, scrambling back for a 20-17 victory at Monster Park.

They won by virtue of a desperate, last-minute drive that ended with receiver Arnaz Battle scoring a one-yard touchdown on an end-around play with 22 seconds remaining.

The hectic finish belied a game in which 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and his Arizona counterpart, Matt Leinart, never generated the offensive fireworks expected of them.

Smith, in his third season, is trying to prove that he can be a star in this league. Leinart, less than two years out of USC, is beginning his first full season as the Cardinals' starter.

How bad was it? They combined for fewer than 250 yards through the air.

That left their teams to rely more heavily on the ground game. San Francisco's Frank Gore, a budding superstar in his own right, rushed for 55 yards and a touchdown. Arizona's Edgerrin James, trying to recapture his All-Pro days in Indianapolis, had 92 yards and a touchdown.

But with the 49ers wearing throwback jerseys in memory of the late Bill Walsh -- and kickoff delayed because of TV scheduling -- there were other matchups to watch.

During the off-season, the 49ers paid dearly to bolster their secondary with free agents. They got a first look at their return on the dollar, cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis facing Arizona's talented receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

"Arizona's group was part of my thought process," 49ers Coach Mike Nolan said when asked earlier in the week about the additions to his defense.

On the Cardinals' first play from scrimmage, Fitzgerald ran a short route and 49ers cornerback Walt Harris stepped in front of the pass for an interception. Two plays later, Gore ran six yards up the middle for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

After that, as Leinart struggled to find a rhythm, Arizona turned to James, who matched Gore with a short touchdown run in the second quarter. Arizona's much-maligned defense -- no big free-agent signings to boast of -- played well enough for a 10-10 tie at halftime.

Absent in all of this was the offensive innovation that Arizona's new coach, Ken Whisenhunt, was supposed to bring to the Cardinals. Nowhere to be seen was the 49ers' talented young tight end, Vernon Davis.

The 49ers took a 13-10 lead early in the second half after Arizona had botched its first series by committing three penalties in four plays.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Cardinals drove downfield with more bullish running by James, two critical 49ers penalties and a Leinart scramble. Leinart threw five yards to Boldin for a 17-13 lead.

San Francisco had one more chance with three minutes remaining, just enough time for Smith to redeem himself -- at least partially -- with a winning drive.

Meanwhile, just across the San Francisco Bay, news broke that No. 1 draft pick JaMarcus Russell was finally close to an agreement with the Oakland Raiders.

It was that sort of evening, made for the hope of better things to come.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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