No kids in Chicago enjoyed Halloween night more than the Bears' rookies.
Rookie Nathan Vasher clinched a 23-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night at Soldier Field with a thrilling 71-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3 minutes 52 seconds left.
Vasher picked off a Ken Dorsey pass intended for Brandon Lloyd, kept his balance and sped down the sideline untouched into the end zone.
The 49ers challenged the play, but the officials ruled that Vasher did not have possession of the ball when his knee touched the ground and was not down when he regained control.
Rookies combined on the Bears' only other touchdown of the nighta 49-yard connection from Craig Krenzel to Bernard Berrian on the second play from scrimmage.
"We have some great young football players making some great contributions," Krenzel said. "I think they're all trying to prove why they're here. It's a great feeling."
There was no disguising the relief and joy all over the faces of the Bears players and coaches as they celebrated their first victory in 42 days. Vasher got mobbed on the sideline as time ran out on the game he saved with his second interception of the season.
"I guess it was just athletic ability," Vasher said. "Hopefully, this will start a streak for us."
Even dressed up as a big win, the Bears might only have proved they were the lesser of two evils in a game between two of the NFL's ugliest teams.
The night affair provided its share of spooky moments, the first coming when Paul Edinger made a 52-yard field goal in the second quarter only because it bounced over the crossbar.
As if not to be outdone, San Francisco kicker Todd Peterson ricocheted a 51-yarder off the opposite crossbar seven minutes later.
Both teams, 1-5 coming in, continued to be haunted by inexperience and injury.
The 49ers, already without their starting cornerbacks, started Dorsey at quarterback because of Tim Rattay's inflamed right forearm. Krenzel, the only rookie quarterback other than Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger start an NFL game this year, completed 13 of 25 passes for 168 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
As if to answer lingering questions about his accuracy, Krenzel lofted a perfectly placed pass on the Bears' second play from scrimmage and Berrian came down with it for the first touchdown.
"A great route by Bernard," Krenzel said.
It gave the Bears their first lead since they led the Vikings 6-0 on Sept. 26.
Overall, Krenzel showed solid poise but shaky execution. The newness of Krenzel's cadence also could have contributed to several false-start penalties that continued to give the Bears the look of a sloppy team.
The Bears did take advantage of Krenzel's mobility by moving the pocket, as offensive coordinator Terry Shea had promised, in attempts to avoid an aggressive 49ers pass rush. Still, San Francisco sacked Krenzel five times as the Bears' offensive line was as spotty protecting the passer as it was strong blocking for running backs.
Running back Anthony Thomas, thrust into action when Thomas Jones left the game with a sprained left foot after the first series, benefited from the return of the running game. Thomas gained 98 yards on 25 carries and fumbled once in the third quarter. The Bears got the ball back one play later when Mike Green recovered a Kevan Barlow fumble caused by Jerry Azumah.
Two early rookie mistakes by Krenzel led to 10 San Francisco points.
On third-and-12 from the 49ers' 12 with 5:43 left in the first quarter, outside linebacker Brandon Moore zipped past Bears right tackle John Tait and forced Krenzel to fumble. Krenzel tried to pick up the ball to make a play rather than fall immediately on the ball, and Moore made him cough it up again. Safety Dwaine Carpenter scooped it up and sped 80 yards for a touchdown that tied the game 7-7.
On the Bears' next series, inexperience struck again when Krenzel sailed a pass intended for Berrian into the arms of free safety Ronnie Heard at the San Francisco 40. Four plays later, Peterson nailed a 48-yard field goal to give the Niners a 10-7 lead. "I'm very disappointed with the way I protected the ball," Krenzel said.
Once again, the Bears' defense kept the opposing offense out of the end zone. Linebacker Brian Urlacher supplied a showcase performance for the national TV audience and showed no signs of a hamstring problem that some say persists.
The Bears entered the game ranked 29th against the run but held the 49ers to 62 rushing yards on 23 carries in the first half.
The starting tandem of Michael Haynes and Alex Brown spent much of the night in Dorsey's face, and little-used reserve Israel Idonije even had a sack.
Special teams also gave the offense a boost from some familiar sources.
For the first time this season, Azumah looked more like a player with Pro Bowl credentials than one feeling the effects of neck surgery last August. Azumah's 73-yard return in the second quarter set up Edinger's second field goal and tied the game at 13. Azumah later added a 42-yarder with his unorthodox, darting style.
Punt returner R.W. McQuarters, the Bears' other weapon, added a 25-yard return in the first half and a key 14-yarder in the third quarter that set up a key field goal. McQuarters' nifty third-quarter return on a bad punt by Andy Lee gave the Bears the ball at the San Francisco 39, and seven plays later, Edinger kicked a 27-yard field goal for a 16-13 lead.
The 49ers answered with a drive deep in Bears territory and appeared to be headed toward a go-ahead score before coach Lovie Smith successfully challenged an official's call. On third-and-8 from the Bears' 32, Dorsey threw to Lloyd for an apparent gain of 9 yards. But replays indicated that Lloyd had trapped the ball.
A 50-yard miss by Peterson with 11:10 left gave the ball back to the Bears and Krenzel.
Krenzel's job: Manage the football game, exhibit the qualities of a winner his reputation suggested and send the 56,639 fans home happy.
"It was a win we really needed to show guys what kind of team we can be," Smith said. "It's been a long time."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun