Alex Smith rallies Niners for 20-17 victory over Cardinals
SAN FRANCISCO - Alex Smith and his San Francisco 49ers looked awful on Bill Walsh Field until the very last minute.
Arnaz Battle scored on a 1-yard end-around with 22 seconds to play, and the 49ers erased an inept offensive performance with an 86-yard scoring drive to cap a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL's final opener Monday night.
Smith looked terrible until leading that near-flawless march in the waning moments for the 49ers, who beat the Cardinals for the first time in five tries during coach Mike Nolan's tenure.
Smith finished 15-of-31 for 126 yards -- 60 on the final drive. The third-year quarterback also made a key 25-yard scramble on fourth-and-1, and Battle hauled in a gutsy catch at the 1 before running it in for the decisive score.
"We worked hard in the situation offense all last season, 2-minute (drill), and knew there would be a lot of games like this," Smith said. "We showed a lot of character ... struggling at times, frustrated on offense, but we finished."
Both teams' high-priced offenses floundered amid the swirling winds in the first game since the field was renamed in Walsh's honor.
Anquan Boldin caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Leinart with 6:40 to play for the Cardinals, who kept the 49ers out of the end zone for 55 straight minutes between Frank Gore's early score and Battle's final TD.
But Arizona's defense finally bent at the end, handing new coach Ken Whisenhunt a typically crushing Cardinals loss in his debut. He's the ninth straight coach to lose his first game with the Cards.
"We had a chance at the end," Whisenhunt said. "We hung in there, we fought, but we just didn't get it done. Just a disappointing loss for our football team."
Edgerrin James rushed for 92 yards and a score, and Leinart was 14-of-28 for 102 yards with two interceptions in the meeting between two long-struggling NFC West clubs with cautiously high hopes for the season. Arizona held the 49ers to 194 total yards, just 30 in the second half -- until that final drive.
After Leinart hit Boldin to cap the Cardinals' go-ahead drive, San Francisco finally got something going two series later.
After Darrell Jackson let a 45-yard pass go through his hands in the end zone with 1:37 left, Smith scrambled to the Arizona 20 on the Niners' longest play of the game. Battle then caught a pass near the goal line with about 30 seconds left, but safety Terrence Holt knocked it out of his hands as he stretched for a touchdown.
The ball dribbled into the end zone, where Arizona's Eric Green misplayed it and Jackson recovered. Because only the fumbler can recover for his team if the ball goes forward in the final two minutes, it was placed at the 1.
Battle scored on the next play.
Whisenhunt remained mystified by the rulings around Battle's catch at the 1.
"I asked them, and they said they thought it was a catch," Whisenhunt said. "I went to the official and asked him, are they going to review it• He said they came back and said it was a catch. I didn't see it. I saw it on the screen. The only thing I saw was the ball coming out."
Shawntae Spencer intercepted Leinart's final pass with 8 seconds left, and the 49ers celebrated a win that seemed to surprise even the players.
Before the final drive, the only thing good-looking about the 49ers was their outfits. Nolan sported the suit-and-tie ensemble he fought with the league to wear, while the players dressed in their cherry-red throwback jerseys in tribute to Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach who led the franchise to three Super Bowl titles.
Gore rushed for 55 yards and an early score after sitting out the entire preseason to heal his broken right hand. But the San Francisco offense struggled without a big game from its catalyst.
Both quarterbacks made turnovers that led to touchdowns in a defense-dominated first half.
Leinart's first pass of the night was easily intercepted by Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris, and Gore scored on a 6-yard run just 3 1/2 minutes in. But Smith fumbled midway through the second quarter when linebacker Karlos Dansby easily eluded Gore's block for a sack. James capped the short drive with a 7-yard scoring run.
Arizona then lost Al Johnson, the former Cowboys center in his first game with the Cardinals, to a left knee injury in the opening minute of the second half, forcing undrafted rookie Lyle Sendlein into action.
Arizona committed six penalties in the first 5 1/2 minutes after halftime, and San Francisco took a 13-10 lead on Joe Nedney's second field goal early in the third period despite having just 88 total yards.
The 49ers honored Walsh, who died of leukemia on July 30, with a halftime tribute that included a short film. Walsh's widow, Geri, stood with several former 49ers as they unveiled a plaque in Walsh's memory, and the coach's initials were added to the ring of honor on Candlestick Park's facade, accompanied by a spray of fireworks.