49ers run over Rams and away from No. 1 pick

The 49ers took an expeditious sprint away from the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft on Saturday, and for those despairing that it likely will cost them a shot at Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush next spring, the backup tailback tandem of Maurice Hicks and Frank Gore had a haughty response. That duo sent a strong message San Francisco is doing just fine at the position, sparking the Niners to their biggest rushing performance in two seasons and a 24-20 win over the hated St. Louis Rams.

Just like that, the 49ers had a lot of feel-good cheer to spread around at the tail end of a miserable season.

A 9½-point underdog, San Francisco snapped a seven-game losing streak by sweeping its longtime rival in the season series for the first time since 1998. The 49ers also picked up their first road victory of 2005 in their final opportunity to do so, assuring they wouldn't go winless on the road for the first time since 1979.

"It's an early Christmas present," 49ers offensive guard Justin Smiley said.

That, apparently, is not how everybody is looking at San Francisco's third victory of the year. Some might already consider the comeback win as the Grinch That Stole Reggie – the lightning-quick USC tailback who could have been the Niners' No. 1 prize if they'd kept losing down the stretch – but there was no mention of that opportunity slipping away Saturday in a celebratory San Francisco locker room.

The talk there centered around how Hicks and Gore slipped past and sliced through a St. Louis defense that couldn't stop them the entire afternoon.

Hicks got things started with a stunning 73-yard touchdown burst on the game's first play from scrimmage. Gore finished it off with a game-winning, tackle-breaking 30-yard touchdown scamper late in the fourth quarter on San Francisco's final play from scrimmage before two meaningless kneel-downs by quarterback Alex Smith in the game's final seconds.

In between, Hicks and Gore kept the 49ers moving during one of their best offensive efforts of the season. Hicks finished with a game-high 109 yards rushing on 10 carries, and Gore contributed 68 yards and two touchdowns on his 10 carries as the Niners finished with 217 yards rushing, averaging a fat 7.5 yards per carry.

It was the most yards the 49ers had gained on the ground since a December game against Arizona in 2003. And they did it without their leading rusher, Kevan Barlow, who missed his third game in the past month with a knee injury.

"Reggie Bush – obviously, people are watching him and talking about him and he's a great player," Hicks said. "But I think we have a great group of backs. With these guys here, we can get the job done."

They sure did Saturday.

After the Rams answered Hicks' early touchdown strike with 20 unanswered points, Gore began San Francisco's comeback with a 10-yard scoring run that began a flurry of 10 San Francisco points in the final 79 seconds of the first half.

But Gore saved his best for last, when the Niners needed it most. After San Francisco had burned five minutes off the clock midway through the fourth quarter while moving methodically down the field, Gore appeared stuffed at the line of scrimmage on a second-down carry from the St. Louis 30.

But he slipped through a crease, danced out of a few arm tackles near the line, then made two change-of-direction cuts in the open field to score the only points by either team in the second half and assure the 49ers (3-12) will not be stuck with a second consecutive 2-14 finish.

"I can't believe Frank made that run," Smiley said. "I barely got a hat on my guy. But sometimes that's all it takes. You saw Frank make something out of nothing. It was pretty amazing."

The 49ers also received a promising performance from Smith, who had the best game of his rookie season while recording his first NFL victory in his sixth start. Although he was sacked five times and faced constant pressure, Smith completed 12 of 16 passes for 131 yards and finished with a quarterback rating of 98.7 – by far the best of his young career.

Smith made several key throws to keep San Francisco drives moving, and his 22-yard strike to Jason McAddley with four seconds remaining in the first half proved to be one of the consequential plays of the game. It moved San Francisco from its 40-yard line to the St. Louis 38, setting up Joe Nedney's career-long 56-yard field goal on the final play of the half to bring the 49ers within 20-7 at the intermission.

"That field goal made the difference in the end," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "There were some big plays in the passing game today, and I feel great about that. Although the offense was inconsistent at times, they got the job done. At the end of the game, our offense had to score and they got it done. And our defense had to stop them, and they got it done."

The Rams, getting the ball back for the final time with four minutes remaining, drove from their own 9 to the San Francisco 31 with 1:14 remaining to play. But quarterback Jamie Martin's pass was tipped into the air by safety Keith Lewis, and the ball fell into the waiting hands of rookie safety Ben Emanuel to seal the victory.

It was another big play in the clutch for the 49ers' defense in the decisive fourth quarter. After the Rams had reached the San Francisco 11, cornerback Shawntae Spencer made a diving interception in the end zone to thwart the drive on the first play of the quarter.

After the Rams reached the San Francisco 22 on their next drive, linebacker Derek Smith (who had a game-high 12 tackles) and nose tackle Anthony Adams stuffed running back Steven Jackson for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-1. The 49ers then took over and went 77 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Although Martin passed for a career-high 354 yards, the 49ers shut out the Rams in the second half and limited St. Louis to just 44 rushing yards on 21 attempts. Despite losing starting cornerbacks Bruce Thornton (sprained knee) and Derrick Johnson (pinched nerve) in the first half, the San Francisco defense hung tough and made plays when it counted.

"A lot of guys had to pull together," Nolan said. "When you face adversity, which we've faced all year long, it makes it all the sweeter. I'm very pleased with the performance. We've bent at times this year and given up a lot of passing yards and stuff, but ultimately you have to keep people out of the end zone and we've done a pretty good job of that in the red zone, today in particular. When our guys really needed to stop them, they did it, and that's what you have to do to win in this league."

And, for the first time since October, the 49ers know what it feels like to win again. On this Christmas Eve, that meant a lot more than losing out on the Reggie Bush sweepstakes.

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