Jarryd Hayne and Mike Purcell continued to duel for the 49ers’ exhibition-season MVP honor.
Hayne, the Aussie import, dazzled on three consecutive punt returns and a long run at tailback against Dallas, and Purcell delivered the first touchdown in the 49ers’ 23-6 victory Sunday night.
With first-round draft pick Arik Armstead closing in from his right, Cowboys backup quarterback Dustin Vaughan attempted a short pass to his left midway through the second quarter. But nose tackle Purcell, the ringleader of a spirited goal-line stand in the exhibition opener at Houston, grabbed the pass, broke two tackles and rambled for a 37-yard touchdown.
Purcell said it was his first touchdown since he played fullback on his freshman high school team. Said coach Jim Tomsula: “How about my man? A pick-six. That’s as fast as I’ve seen him run.”
Purcell went undrafted two years ago and spent most of the last two seasons on the 49ers’ practice squad under the tutelage of Tomsula, the former defensive-line coach. But he has become yet another promising young defensive lineman the 49ers must consider squeezing onto the 53-man roster in two weeks.
Hayne, meanwhile, likely sealed his roster spot with more explosive plays.
After the 49ers’ defense forced a three-and-out series to open the game, the Cowboys’ Chris Jones uncorked a 66-yard punt that shot over Hayne.
No matter. Hayne retreated 12 yards, caught the ball Willie Mays-style over his shoulder and returned it 27 yards, darting past defenders.
Hayne said there was a smudge on his face mask just before the play. He ran off the field to clean it, then scrambled to get in position as the Cowboys snapped the ball.
He said he momentarily lost track of the ball in the air, then had to backtrack in a hurry.
“By the height and the way it was rotating, I knew it was long,” Hayne said. “I said, ‘Shoot, that’s going a long way.’ I turned my back, got the read (on the ball) on the way down and put my hands out and thought it would roll off backward, because of how much ground I had to cover. I just had to do my best.”
258 All-purpose yards by the 49ers’ Jarryd Hayne after two exhibition games
Hayne showed similar moves on his second punt return, a 34-yarder, and his third, a 23-yarder.
In the exhibition opener, Hayne, known in Australia as the “Hayne Plane,” entered at running back late in the first quarter and had a 53-yard run on his second carry. On Sunday, he didn’t carry the ball until the third quarter because coaches wanted to get an extended look at rookie Mike Davis.
Hayne still capitalized on his chances, gaining positive yards in traffic and breaking a third-and-short run for 34 yards that included an effective stiff-arm – known in Australia as a “fend” or “palm” – on a would-be tackler.
So far, Hayne has racked up 258 all-purpose yards, not bad for someone whose first padded NFL practice came just this month.
Still, Tomsula tried to temper expectations – at home and abroad – for the 27-year-old rookie.
“Obviously, the guy is doing really well and making a great case for himself,” he said. “That’s the story. He’s never played the game and is in the conversation to make the 53-man roster. That’s the story. That speaks to who he is.”
Davis also ran well – he had eight carries for 34 yards – as did starter Carlos Hyde. He had 32 rushing yards on the 49ers’ opening drive and a 6-yard reception on third and 5.
Hyde, Colin Kaepernick and the first-team offense drove 51 yards on the first drive. But it ended at the Dallas 7 when Kaepernick’s back-shoulder pass in the end zone to Torrey Smith was knocked away by cornerback Corey White.
The 49ers settled for Phil Dawson’s 25-yard field goal, one of three 49ers field goals. Dawson also converted a 33-yarder in the second quarter, and rookie Corey Acosta made a 38-yarder in the third quarter.
Kaepernick left after two series. He was 2 of 5 for 13 yards and gained 9 yards on a designed run to the left.
San Francisco’s other touchdown came on special teams when Quinton Patton blocked a fourth-quarter punt and grabbed the bouncing ball in the end zone.