Failed trick return was Bucs back-breaker
The 49ers had just finished off a draining 17-play drive to go ahead 23-14 with 4:27 remaining when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers geared up for a quick strike. Eric Page took the ensuing kickoff and decided to take matters in his own hands. The first-year receiver burst down the middle and attempted a handoff to rookie Russell Shepard, swooping in from left to right, but the exchange was botched and Shepard fell down.
San Francisco’s Kendall Hunter alertly scooped up the fumble at the 2-yard line and finished off the back-breaking score, only six seconds after Phil Dawson’s 21-yard field goal. “We’d been working on that play for a little while,’’ said Page, who handles both punt and kickoff return duties for Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think anyone planned for it to go that way ... that wasn’t the way it was supposed to work out. It was going smooth in practice, and we knew it was going to be open. When I looked back, I thought he had the ball ... then I saw him fall.’’
Shepard, claimed off waivers from the Eagles a week before the season opener, offered no excuses. “I put that on me,’’ he said. “I’ve got to secure it. I have to be able to secure the ball. Unfortunately, at a tight point in the game, it happened. I have to give our offense an opportunity to come out and have a game-winning drive.’’
Bucs coach Greg Schiano suggested the timing wasn’t quite right to run the reverse, but Shepard wasn’t seeking an exit door. “I have to be a man about it,’’ he said. “I have to learn from it and allow this to make me a better player at the end of the day.’’