Monday, Nov. 14, 1994

Niners shoot down the Cowboys

Jerry Magee
San Diego Union-Tribune

14-Nov-1994 Monday

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Merton Hanks was saying his prayers on the night before the game, he said he asked the Lord for five turnovers.

"And he gave me three," said the San Francisco defensive back.

Hanks' arithmetic was flawed, but no matter. Coming where they did, his two interceptions turned around the biggest game of this NFL season yesterday and delivered it to San Francisco.

Hanks seized one of his interceptions on the 1-yard line, the other on the goal line as the 49ers turned away Dallas 21-14 and gained a measure of atonement for losses to the Cowboys in the last two NFC Championship Games.

"It was put up or shut up for our secondary," said Hanks, who put up. So did quarterback Steve Young, who outplayed the Cowboys' Troy Aikman. So did Jerry Rice, who carried a Young pass 57 yards to the touchdown late in the third period that sped the 49ers to an eighth victory in 10 games.

The Cowboys also are 8-2 following their defeat before a crowd of 69,014, the largest in Candlestick Park since the 49ers began playing there in 1971.

In his prayers, Hanks didn't say if he mentioned Deion Sanders, but he was remiss if he didn't. Hanks wouldn't be playing where he is but for Sanders, whose arrival here in September caused Hanks to be shifted from right corner to free safety.

Cornerbacks are the glamour guys of NFL defensive backfields, but Hanks said he wasn't piqued by being moved.

"If anything," he said, "I was happy."

One thing didn't delight Hanks: Early on, he came down with what TV replays clearly showed was an interception, but it was disallowed, the pass being ruled incomplete.

"They took one from me, man," complained the safety.

Sanders, meantime, has become a presence on the 49ers. Merely by being out there, he seems to touch on everything the team does defensively.

"When he's out even for one play, you can see the difference," said Bobb McKittrick, George Seifert's offensive line coach.

How much difference has Sanders made in the 49ers' defense?

"An infinite amount," answered McKittrick. "As much as one man possibly could."

Sanders twice had to leave the game after dislocating the middle finger on his left hand, but he twice returned. He was on the field for the game's decisive defensive play -- when Aikman, apparently not wishing to test Sanders, aimed a pass at Alvin Harper from the San Francisco 7 with the 49ers leading 14-7 and 6:10 to go.

Earlier, Harper had carried an Aikman pass 90 yards to the Niners' 4 to set up an Emmitt Smith scoring run. At the 7, Hanks said his mission was to key on Smith.

"But Smith stayed in to block," Hanks said, "so I drifted to the solid side."

He meant the strong side of Dallas' offensive formation. From that side, tight end Jay Novacek angled toward the end zone, but Hanks, known for his keen sense of anticipation, moved in front of him for an interception he returned 13 yards to the 49ers' 13.

The 49ers hit from there in 11 plays to a clinching touchdown. Young delivered it by rolling out from the Dallas 13 and finding tight end Brent Jones with 2:32 left.

A touchdown Smith collected from the San Francisco 2 with 1:20 to go was anticlimactic. Reserve wide receiver Ed McCaffrey's recovery of an attempted onside kick sealed matters.

Dallas' offense was this limited: in the first period, it ran only one play past midfield. In the third quarter, it failed to progress past that point.

"They're a great team. They really are. Great defense. Great offense, too," said McKittrick of the Cowboys. "But the main difference was that they weren't making even a loud foul on our defense."

Though Young threw for only 183 yards on a 12-for-21 afternoon for him, he permitted no turnovers to Aikman's three. And he picked up yardage with key runs, getting 60 yards on eight carries.

Young wouldn't say the game represented a redemption for him. "I try to avoid the deep psychology of the whole thing," he said. "It can wear you out."

Still, it had to be satisfying to him that he had bested Aikman. In the three previous Dallas-San Francisco games, all won by Dallas, Aikman had been almost perfect; in those games he was a composite 59-for-87 for 742 yards with five TD passes and no interceptions.

Young noted that after games one or two players generally stand the tallest. "Today in the locker room I passed 15 or 20 guys who had big plays," said the QB, "and that's championship football."

The 49ers also succeeded in checking Smith. He had 78 yards rushing and 32 as a receiver.

The Cowboys took the loss matter-of-factly. "This is not our Super Bowl," noted guard Nate Newton.

No, the winners yesterday didn't get double Green Stamps. Whatever, the 49ers will take this one.