Late signs of hope and growth

Alex Smith threw the first touchdown pass of his NFL career. Frank Gore recorded his first 100-yard game and finished the season as the fourth rookie to lead the 49ers in rushing. Mike Adams scored his first NFL touchdown and had his first two-interception game. In addition to a winning streak to take into 2006, the 49ers saw signs of hope and deeds of accomplishment Sunday from several young players who will take them forward in the future.

The most promising signs came from Gore, the third-round draft pick who churned for 108 yards on the ground on a career-high 25 carries. Gore moved the pile on several of his runs and carried the offense in a game of field position amid rainy conditions in a seesaw fourth quarter.

In the process, he also became the first rookie since Dexter Carter in 1990 to finish as San Francisco's season rushing leader. Gore finished with 608 yards rushing this season to pass 2003 and 2004 team leader Kevan Barlow, who didn't play Sunday because of a knee injury and finished with 581 yards. Gore finished with the highest rushing total by a 49ers rookie since Roger Craig gained 725 yards rushing in 1983.

Gore's 4.8-yard rushing average is first among all NFL rookies and sixth in the league among running backs with 100 or more carries.

"I want to be something special in this league," Gore gushed after the game. "Every opportunity I get, I'm going to try my best to be special. We have three great backs on this team. I'm just going to train hard and compete for the starting job next season."

Gore already is the odds-on favorite to win that job next year, even though coach Mike Nolan has been pleased with Barlow's development and also has been impressed with the play of Maurice Hicks, who started at tailback Sunday for the second week in a row and complemented Gore with 64 yards on 18 carries.

"I've thought all along (that Gore is a starting NFL back) since we drafted him," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "The setback was when we found out about his bad shoulder before the season started and we had to back off a little bit on his reps. But he continues to prove it. He's all football, he's extremely tough and he's a team guy."

Smith also reached a milestone of sorts when he finally connected on the first touchdown pass of his career, a nice throw on the run to Brandon Lloyd in the corner of the end zone in the second quarter. To that point, Smith had thrown 149 passes and 11 interceptions this season without recording his first scoring pass. It's the third-longest streak in NFL history for a quarterback without a TD pass.

But now it's behind him, and Smith continued to display gradual development Sunday. He made some strong throws, and his tendency to spray the ball continues to decrease. Most importantly, he will enter the 2006 season with a two-game winning streak as a starting quarterback.

"He had his first touchdown pass today and I'm sure it won't be his last," said Houston safety Glenn Earl, whose second-quarter interception was Smith's lone turnover of the day. "Smith's going to be a good player. He's young, he's learning as he goes and I'm sure he won't make the same mistakes twice. I think he's got what it takes to be successful at this level."

Said 49ers center Eric Heitmann, "We knew Alex was due, and I'm excited for the guy. He is a very talented athlete and a very good quarterback and he is going to be an extraordinary quarterback for us in the future. We knew (his first TD pass) was coming and I'm glad he finally got it out of the way because he has a lot more to come."

The best also appears yet to come for the youngsters in San Francisco's secondary, which continued to play very well despite finishing the season with only one starter who also started in the season opener back in September.

The standout was Adams, whose two interceptions were the two big plays on defense that may have turned a dismal loss to the lowly Texans into a victory for the 49ers. Smith returned his first pick 40 yards for a touchdown in the final seconds of the third quarter to tie the game 17-17 at a time when it looked as though the seven points needed by the 49ers to get even would be very hard to come by for the San Francisco offense.

Adams' touchdown was the fifth this season by the San Francisco defense – its most since recording five in 1999 – and his two interceptions left him tied with Shawntae Spencer as the team's season leader with four.

"It was time to make some plays and I made them," Adams said. "Both of the (interceptions) were huge. But I was just trying to make plays to help this team win. That's what I want to continue to do in the future."

The 49ers also had some nice finishes by two other veterans they would like to have back in 2006 as part of their rebuilding plans.

--- Kicker Joe Nedney, who drilled field goals from 42 and 33 yards, finished 26 of 28 on field-goal tries this season. His 33-yarder with 3:52 remaining in overtime was the 14th game-winning field goal of his career and his second this season with the 49ers.

--- Lloyd, who led the 49ers in touchdown receptions for the second straight season – and, this year, led the team in total touchdowns with five – led the 49ers with 48 receptions for 733 yards this season. His 15.3-yard average per catch is the most by a 49ers receiver since Terrell Owens had a 16.4 average in 1998.

Between them, Gore, Hicks, Lloyd and receiver Arnaz Battle combined to account for 302 of San Francisco's 324 offensive yards. Smith also threw for 159 yards, the second-highest total of his career.

"We are growing up," Gore said. "You can tell that we're growing up, by our play when we're down. We keep fighting. We don't give up. We just keep growing."

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