MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins took the third-and-5 shotgun snap with 3 minutes left and Minnesota holding an eight-point lead.
He decided to run for it.
The San Francisco defense converged as Cousins crossed his 40-yard line, so the most expensive player in Vikings history lowered his head as he tried to power his way past the first-down marker.
Cousins took a shoulder to the back from 49ers linebacker Elijah Lee as he tumbled to the turf and came up just short, a dangerous way for a franchise quarterback to try to move the chains, but his determination to experience victory in his Vikings debut on Sunday afternoon was not to be reasoned with.
“Hey, when the game’s on the line, we’re trying to get the first down. Go for it,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I’m all in.”
Cousins passed for two touchdowns and the Vikings forced four turnovers, fueling a 24-16 win over the 49ers in the season opener that stuck Jimmy Garoppolo with his first loss in eight games as an NFL starting quarterback .
The Vikings actually kept that late drive alive by a 49ers neutral zone infraction penalty on fourth-and-1, before punting four plays later. Harrison Smith’s interception, the third by the Vikings against Garoppolo in the second half, sealed the game with 1:35 remaining.
Asked afterward about that head-first hustle, Cousins acknowledged the risk of such a play and said he might have been better served with a stutter-step or some kind of move to try to make Lee miss.
“We had played too hard at that point to just slide early and give up on that,” Cousins said.
Cousins completed 20 of 36 passes for 244 yards without a turnover. He faced plenty of pressure, highlighted by DeForest Buckner and his 2½ sacks, and there were a handful of awkward-looking plays produced by the Vikings. Cousins was right on target at just the right times , though, delivering several clutch throws in traffic including the scoring passes to Stefon Diggs in the second quarter and Kyle Rudolph in the third quarter.
“That’s NFL football. I think that if you’re not really accurate and you don’t have that confidence to let it rip, you’re going to be holding the ball and getting sacked, you’re going to be spraying it everywhere,” Cousins said. “If you’re waiting for guys to be open, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”
Cousins, who signed a three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed contract with the Vikings this spring, clearly savored his first regular season contest at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 15-3, including the playoffs since it opened. The last player to emerge from the tunnel during pregame introductions, Cousins said the honor was undeserved and should have been reserved for Diggs, wide receiver Adam Thielen, left tackle Riley Reiff or running back Dalvin Cook.
“It’s just an example of the team welcoming me with open arms, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity that I’ve been given,” Cousins said, “and I just want to make good on it with every chance I get.”
Here are some other key angles that emerged from the game:
GETTING TO GAROPPOLO: Garoppolo finished 15 for 33 for 261 yards and a touchdown pass to rookie Dante Pettis late in the third quarter, but the Vikings sacked him three times. Mike Hughes returned the first pick 28 yards for a score.
“There’s not one word to put on it. We went against a very good defense, and we all didn’t play as good as we could,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Lots of quarterbacks struggle against that defense. Jimmy did some good things, but by no means was he perfect.”
COMEBACK COMPLETE: Cook had 16 carries for 40 yards and six catches for 55 yards, a productive return to live action after tearing the ACL in his left knee about 11 months earlier. He lost a fumble at the San Francisco 29 after spinning and muscling his way through a crowd of defenders for a 15-yard gain.
Cook declared his knee and body fit for a full season, but his mind was also on his family. His uncle and childhood confidant, Anthony Jones, a running back for Florida International University, was wounded in a drive-by shooting in Miami on Thursday. Cook’s grandmother raised him and Jones, her son.
“Just going out there, competing, playing my heart out, that’s what he wanted,” Cook said.
KITTLE’S DROP: Garoppolo and the 49ers had their hands full against the league’s leading defense of 2017, losing wide receiver Marquise Goodwin to a first-quarter quadriceps injury and two right guards to foot injuries. They had success rolling Garoppolo out on misdirection plays, and tight end George Kittle was the biggest beneficiary with five catches for 90 yards.
The one he didn’t make stood out. Wide open up the seam, Kittle had what would’ve been a 30-yard completion fall off his fingers at midfield. The third-down interception by Hughes came on the next play to give the Vikings a 17-3 lead.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted,” Kittle said, “but I feel like we definitely had some momentum going and if we can do that we’ll be a pretty good offense.”
DEFENSE DIGS IN: The 49ers gave Garoppolo an opportunity with three straight three-and-out possessions by the Vikings in the fourth quarter. Rookie Fred Warner, starting at middle linebacker with Reuben Foster suspended, led the team with 12 tackles, including one for loss. He also had one quarterback hurry, one pass breakup and the forced fumble on Cook.
“Middle linebacker is one of the toughest positions to come in as a rookie and play and be effective,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, who made his 49ers debut. “I think he did an admirable job.”
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