A 49ers team that led 28-7 at halftime, scored a defensive touchdown and finished the game with two 100-plus-yard rushers ran out of gas – and luck – late and fell to the San Diego Chargers 38-35 in overtime on Saturday night at Levi’s Stadium.
There were four fumbles (three by the 49ers) in the second half, all recovered by the Chargers. That includes Colin Kaepernick’s third-quarter fumble that was recovered in the end zone by San Diego’s Corey Liuget and which cut the 49ers’ lead to 28-21 as well as a fumble by wide receiver Quinton Patton in overtime at the end of a 20-yard gain.
The Chargers took that gift and drove 40 yards in eight plays before Nick Novak ended the game with a 40-yard field goal. The loss guaranteed Jim Harbaugh’s first non-winning season since he joined the 49ers (7-8) in 2011 and was yet another stumble in a year marked by off-the-field distractions and second-half collapses.
“Right now, not much to say, other than keep fighting,” a decidedly downcast Harbaugh said. “Get our last regular season win. That’ll be the goal. But that’s a tough one. Everybody feels it.”
The loss also squandered a rare dual rushing performance by Frank Gore and Kaepernick, both of whom finished with well over 100 yards, the first time the 49ers had done so since their 2012 playoff win over the Packers and the first time the 49ers had done it in a regular-season game since 1977. The 49ers finished Saturday’s game with a franchise-record 355 rushing yards.
Since the season began, Gore has been eager to prove he still has life in his 31-year-old legs. The Chargers’ defense won’t argue. In fact, safety Eric Weddle might add that Gore has plenty of pop in his stiff arm, too. Weddle was one of three Chargers defenders that Gore left in his wake during a 52-yard touchdown run on the 49ers’ opening drive, which set a bruising, aggressive tone early in a game in which the 49ers raced to a 21-0 lead.
It was the first time they had scored more than 17 points in the last five weeks and only the second time they’d surpassed 30 points all season.
Gore, who entered the contest 196 yards shy of reaching the 1,000-yard barrier, surpassed 100 yards early in the second quarter and finished with 158 yards in the game.
He wasn’t the only 49er with an impressive ground total.
Kaepernick’s running game, dormant for long stretches this season, began to stir last week when he ran nine times for 46 yards against the Seahawks. It exploded in the third quarter Saturday after the Chargers had pulled within 28-21 thanks to a Kaepernick fumble. On the enduing possession, Kaepernick drifted to his right, then burst 90 yards through the Chargers’ defense all the while looking very much like the quarterback who carved up Green Bay’s defense in the 2012 playoffs.
Kaepernick ended up with 151 yards against the Chargers, his highest total since San Francisco’s divisional playoff win against the Packers in the 2012 season.
One of the themes Saturday was the abundance of young players in the 49ers’ lineup, largely because of attrition. Rookie Aaron Lynch, for example, started at left outside linebacker for Ahmad Brooks, who is dealing with a thumb injury. Tony Jerod-Eddie, who is in his third season, replaced Ray McDonald at left defensive end after McDonald was released during the week.
Other moves, however, seemed geared toward the 2015 season.
Wide receivers Bruce Ellington and Patton, for example, received plenty of playing time, mostly at the expense of Michael Crabtree, who was dealing with a knee injury in the run-up to the game. Crabtree also is scheduled to be a free agent in March.
Ellington, a rookie, caught his second touchdown pass of the season on a nicely conceived second-quarter play in which he darted down the line of scrimmage, faked a handoff with Kaepernick, then continued to the near corner of the end zone, where Kaepernick hit him for an 8-yard touchdown.
Later in the half, Ellington took the fly-sweep handoff, scoring on a 1-yard run and becoming the first 49ers rookie to score both a receiving and rushing touchdown in the same game since Amp Lee did it in 1992.
Gore, meanwhile, is one of the oldest players on the squad. But his performance was proof that he’s not too old for the NFL – his 52-yard run early in the first quarter was his longest touchdown since 2009 – and that he could perhaps be back with the 49ers in 2015. The team’s all-time rusher is in the final year of his contract and is expected to test his worth on the open market. The 49ers, however, may end up being his best suitor.
They began the offseason with a surplus of rushers but lost Kendall Hunter to an ACL injury in training camp and Marcus Lattimore to retirement, and released LaMichael James. Gore’s main backup this season, rookie Carlos Hyde, missed the Chargers game with an ankle injury.
Kaepernick’s 90-yard touchdown run gave the 49ers a 35-21 lead with just one quarter remaining.
At that point, however, the Chargers began to take advantage of the 49ers’ injuries and inexperience on defense. They put together scoring drives of nine and 14 plays in the fourth quarter, the second of which knotted the game 35-35 with 32 seconds left. Those drives sandwiched a three-and-out series by San Francisco, which has scored only two fourth-quarter touchdowns all season, one of them by backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
The 49ers intercepted San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers three times, and one of those was returned 49 yards for a touchdown by safety Antoine Bethea in the second quarter. Still, 273 of Rivers’ 356 passing yards came after half time, and he was able to come up with a first down -- 21 of them in the second half -- whenever San Diego needed one.
Asked if he’d ever had a season like this one, left tackle Joe Staley, an eight-year veteran, said 2014 has been unique.
“We have had losing seasons before,” he said, “but with the success we have had in the past, (this season) has been weird.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.