Wakeup call comes too late in loss to Texans

The 49ers didn't wake up from their bye week until after halftime Sunday afternoon in Houston. But it was a new team upon the awakening – with a new quarterback. A rejuvenated Alex Smith led an inspired comeback with three second-half TD passes, but it wasn't enough to make up for San Francisco's dreadful play in the first half as the Texans held on at the finish for a 24-21 victory.

It almost was enough.

The 49ers trailed 21-0 at halftime after playing poorly in every phase of the game. But there they were at the end, trying to move down the field in the final minute to get in position for a possible game-tying field goal before mistakes caught up with them again.

Alas, Smith – forced back by a penalty into a fourth-and-10 situation at San Francisco's 38-yard line – was intercepted with 36 seconds to play, putting the nail in the coffin the 49ers had somehow climbed out of in the final two quarters after Smith took over at quarterback for Shaun Hill and breathed some life into a staggering offense.

But San Francisco's stumbling and bumbling during another forgettable first-half display simply was too much to overcome as the 49ers lost coming off their bye week for the sixth consecutive year.

"We have just been beating ourselves," 49ers cornerback Shawntae Spencer said. "I don't really know what's going on. This is the National Football League. We can't go down 21-0. Being behind 21-0 put a lot of pressure on our offense."

So much pressure that coach Mike Singletary decided to go to the bullpen after the 49ers managed only 50 yards of total offense and three first downs in the first half with Hill directing the attack.

San Francisco has been outscored 56-10 in the first half of its last two games and, at that point, had been outscored 66-10 in their last six quarters.

But it was a different story in the second half.

"I just felt like we needed a spark, a change," Singletary said of his decision to replace Hill, who led the team to a 3-1 start. "Our offense is in a rut and we have playmakers on the field, and we need to get the ball to them when we have the chance to do some things. I felt Alex had that opportunity to come in and let's see what he can do in an adverse situation."

Smith responded with perhaps the best half of football of his five-year career. Looking poised and skillful in the pocket, Smith completed 15 of 22 passes for 206 yards in the final two quarters, hitting tight end Vernon Davis with touchdown throws of 29, 14 and 23 yards.

In his first action since 2007, Smith directed TD drives of 53, 71 and 78 yards, the last of which brought the 49ers within three points with 3:43 to play. He had the Niners moving again in the final minutes after starting at their own 6 before finally running out of magic.

"He's a pro," receiver Josh Morgan said. "He came out and did the job, and that's what we're supposed to do. They call on you to make plays no matter how long you've been out."

It brought a rather upbeat ending to an afternoon that saw the 49ers continuing to regress instead of improving with an extra week to prepare for the Texans. Houston could do little after halftime to stop the San Francisco passing game, which also featured a stellar debut from rookie first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree.

Crabtree made several tough grabs and four of his five receptions went for first downs. His presence seemed to open things for the passing game, leading to quality production from both Davis (seven receptions, 93 yards) and Morgan (four receptions, 62 yards).

"Once we get going, we're going," Davis said. "Everyone was getting excited on offense. They started to believe. That's what it's about. You have to get going."

Unfortunately for the 49ers, they got it going a bit too late. And they couldn't quite dig all the way out of the deep hole they'd fallen into during the first two quarters.

There was a missed tackle by cornerback Nate Clements on third-and-9 that allowed Steve Slaton to scoot to the 1-yard line and set up Houston's first touchdown on the next play.

There was a blown coverage in the secondary that allowed tight end Owen Daniels to slip free and haul in a 42-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Matt Schaub, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

And then there was perhaps San Francisco's most galling miscue of all – Arnaz Battle's muffed punt in the second quarter.

After San Francisco's defense forced a punt after a nine-play Houston drive, Battle circled under the high kick, called for a fair catch... Then simply dropped it. The Texans recovered at the San Francisco 10-yard line and scored two plays later.

That ultimately left the 49ers just short at the end after they won the second half 21-3 with offensive fireworks and a defensive effort that limited the Texans to just a field goal after halftime.

"Obviously, it is very disappointing and frustrating to come down here and get 21 points behind in the first half," Singletary said. "There is no reason for that. To find ourselves in a situation where we have to dig ourselves out of a hole in the second half is unacceptable."

The 49ers never could get their running game untracked despite the return of Frank Gore, who missed the team's previous two games with an ankle injury. Gore had just seven yards rushing in the first half and finished with 32 yards on 13 carries as the 49ers had to go away from their ground game as the second half progressed and they were playing catch-up.

San Francisco also had 11 penalties, several of which were costly in key sequences. Overall, it was a ragged performance that dropped the Niners to the .500 level for the first time this season at 3-3.

But the silver lining was the spark provided by Smith and Crabtree on offense. The 49ers now officially have a quarterback controversy again, and the team may be ready to hand over the offense to Smith with a game at undefeated Indianapolis looming next week.

"All I know is it will get better," Singletary said. "We certainly have tools and there is no reason in the world why we're not playing better on offense and defense and special teams. We just need to continue getting better at all phases of the game, and we will."

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