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SANTA CLARA – Three starts have yielded three comeback wins by 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but Sunday’s was different. This one came in his first home start at Levi’s Stadium, and it took Robbie Gould’s sixth field goal as time expired to defeat the Tennessee Titans 25-23
"It’s fun. It is very fun,” Garoppolo said. “Football at the end of the day is a little kids game that grown men get to play. I’m just privileged to get to do that every day."
Starting at their 25-yard line with 67 privileged seconds to use, it took only three plays – three Garoppolo completions – to move the 49ers into field-goal range. Making those catches were Trent Taylor (7 yards), George Kittle (24) and Marquise Goodwin (14).
With :03 left on the clock, Gould launched his game-winning, 45-yard field goal, which he started celebrating even before it cleared the cross bar and got him hoisted onto teammates’ shoulders at midfield.
“I have no idea what happened from the time I made it to the time I got in the locker room,” said Gould, who became the first kicker in NFL history to make 15 field goals in a three-game span, including five at Chicago and four at Houston in the previous two wins.
The 49ers (4-10) improved to 3-0 in Garoppolo’s starts and have won 4 of 5 since an 0-9 start.
“He’s been just as good as advertised, if not better,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I’ve really enjoyed working with him, enjoyed game day with him. It gets a little easier for both of us each week and hopefully that continues.”
The Titans (8-6) fell two games behind AFC South-leading Jacksonville, which visits Levi’s Stadium next Sunday.
Gould had put the 49ers ahead on a 48-yard field goal with 3:08 remaining, but the Titans responded with Ryan Succup’s 50-yard field goal.
"Before the last drive, he came up to each and every one us and said to stay locked in because we might need to do this one more time,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said of Garoppolo. “We were all counting on the defense to get a stop, but he said to not sleep and stay locked in because we might need one more."
As the 49ers went out for the climactic conclusion, Garoppolo and his cohorts were confident they could move the ball, especially because the two-minute drill is the 49ers’ point-producing specialty. They finished with 414 yards against the league’s ninth-ranked defense.
“It was fun,” Shanahan said. “(Garoppolo) looked as poised as could be. That was a great drive at the end.”
Did Garoppolo give Gould any words before the winning kick?
“Absolutely not,” Garoppolo answered. “He’s in the zone. I know how that is. Actually, I don’t know how that is for him. But when we went out for the two-minute drill, we went and handled our business, and he handled his. That’s what a good team does.
Gould’s opinion on Garoppolo: “That’s a pretty special football player.”
Garoppolo led the 49ers to points on all four of their first-half possessions – field goal, field goal, touchdown, field goal — for a 16-3 lead. The Titans went on a 17-point scoring spree to go up 20-16 with 13:31 remaining, grabbing their first lead on Rishard Matthews’ 8-yard, third-down touchdown catch.
The walk-off win only underscored this being the 49ers’ greatest win in Levi’s Stadium’s 4-year history, as veterans such as Daniel Kilgore and Celek testified afterward. “I said this when we won in Chicago (two weeks ago): We’re a young team, we’re learning how to win and these close games will only pay off in the long run, I think for next year and everything,” Garoppolo said.
BEAT THE BLITZ: Shanahan and left tackle Joe Staley don’t ever recall being part of an NFL game where they’ve faced more blitzes. Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau invented the zone blitz decades ago, so that tactic wasn’t a surprise, other than its frequency. Garoppolo got blitzed on 26 of 46 dropbacks, but he produced a 98.8 passer rating on them (16 of 23, 214 yards), ProFootballFocus.com said.
“They were dialing it up every play in the first half,” Staley said. “… One of the ways to handle that is to get the passing game going, and Jimmy obviously knows where to throw the ball. He did a great job getting rid of the ball quick and making them pay.”
Added Garoppolo: “When they blitz like that it creates holes in the defense. It’s good matchups for us.”
Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of Garoppolo: "A lot of pinpoint throws. A lot of very catchable throws, very tough to defend throws. I thought he made a lot of plays for that, I mean he made a lot of plays out of the pocket, he made a lot of plays for that offense."
CLUTCH RECEIVERS: Although Trent Taylor’s third-down drop reminded some of the 49ers’ early season woes, the receiving corps has flourished with Garoppolo. It’s not just Marquise Goodwin (career-high 10 catches, 114 yards). Garoppolo opened fourth-quarter drives with long, catch-and-runs by tight end Garrett Celek (41 yards) and rookie Kendrick Bourne (54 yards). “He’s got a great touch,” Celek said. “The throws aren’t late. Right when you get open, he’s firing it in there.”
Titans cornerback Brice McCain didn’t give Garoppolo much credit: "It was us. He came in, he executed, but the chunk of yardage came from blown coverages. That’s about it. He didn’t do anything special. He threw a lot of quick game, get the ball to the receiver’s hands fast, and they made plays. That’s about it. It was nothing special. He didn’t do anything special. He just threw to open guys."
Taylor made amends with a 7-yard catch to start the final drive, followed by Kittle’s 24-yard reception and Goodwin’s 14-yarder. Said Garoppolo: “There were guys stepping up all over the place. That’s what makes a good team. We’re building toward that.”
DEFENSIVE STOP: The 49ers run defense continues to make strides, holding the 10th-ranked rushing attack to 90 yards. Although the Titans did kick a go-ahead field goal with 1:07 left, DeForest Buckner’s third-down tackle for no gain against DeMarco Murray (18 carries, 59 yards) kept the drive from going longer and using valuable time.
“I thought we could cram it in there,” Titans Marcus Mariota said. “Looking back on it, you know the fact that he got somebody low to the box, I just thought that we could put it in there for two yards, and you know some of that I wish I could have had back."
Linebacker Reuben Foster added: "We’re 4-10 but it doesn’t mean we aren’t starving. We’re hungry. We’re 4-10, so we’ve got to look forward to this year and next year. We have to treat these next two games like our playoffs."
49ers K Robbie Gould: He was 6-for-6 on field-goal attempts, and he’s now kicked a career-high 36 this season (38 attempts).
49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo: 31-of-43, 381 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 106.8 rating.
49ers WR Marquise Goodwin: 10 catches on 13 targets, 114 yards.
Titans QB Marcus Mariota: 23-of-33, 241 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT; 2 carries, 4 yards.
Titans TE Delanie Walker: He had a 4-yard touchdown catch, dropped an earlier potential touchdown pass, and fumbled away a second-quarter reception.