By resting most of its playmakers, Tampa Bay also got everything it wanted out of a game that only held real meaning for Young, the 49ers’ stalwart defensive tackle.
Shaun Hill passed for 123 yards and three touchdowns to remain unbeaten as an NFL starter, and Michael Clayton landed out of bounds with his catch on a 2-point conversion attempt with 1:20 left in San Francisco’s 21-19 victory over Tampa Bay’s reserves Sunday.
The Buccaneers (9-6) already are headed to the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 4 seed, so Tampa Bay treated the day as a glorified exhibition, removing nearly every key player in the second half.
The 49ers (5-10) are guaranteed their fifth straight losing season, so their greatest motivation was to make a fond memory for Young, the 14-year veteran who’s all but certain to retire next month.
“I was just trying to enjoy the moment and focus on the game, and just trying to focus on my job,” said Young, who played a noticeably effective game in his usual thankless role in the trenches. “I was trying not to get too emotional and break down, because I had a job to do out there.”
The 49ers honored Young, a four-time Pro Bowler and the final roster link to the 49ers’ last championship, with a pregame tribute on the video board. He took the field to fireworks and a standing ovation, and left blowing kisses to San Francisco’s fans.
“I hope someday I can just have half the career he’s had,” said rookie linebacker Patrick Willis, who had 20 tackles and two sacks and forced a fumble.
Nate Clements’ 62-yard interception return set up Frank Gore’s TD catch with 14:11 left for the 49ers, who beat a team with a winning record for the first time this year. Darrell Jackson and Vernon Davis also caught touchdown passes for San Francisco, which won consecutive games for the first time since the season’s first two weeks.
Jeff Garcia passed for 196 yards and a touchdown against his former team before coach Jon Gruden removed him and his most talented mates late in the first half to keep the NFC South champions healthy. Yet with running back Earnest Graham, receiver Joey Galloway and every key defensive player sitting down, Luke McCown nearly rallied the backups for a win.
“It’s a decision that we made when we won the division last week,” Gruden said. “We’ve had a number of injuries this year. We’ve been able to overcome them and qualify for the playoffs. … I wanted to take this as an opportunity to evaluate some of our other players, and we’re glad we did that. It’ll be a very similar case next week.”
McCown, who passed for 185 yards, led a late 61-yard TD drive in 85 seconds, with Jerramy Stevens catching his second TD pass. But Clayton’s foot was clearly out of bounds when he came down with a pass on the 2-point attempt, and San Francisco recovered the onside kick.
“We’re not concerned about (momentum) at all,” said Graham, who had just 21 yards on nine carries. “These coaches have been through a lot of games, and we trust that they’ll be making the right calls and have us in the best position for the playoffs.”
Young’s tributes overshadowed a tame homecoming for Garcia, who made three Pro Bowls and led the 49ers to three playoff games in five seasons here. The 49ers released him in early 2004 in a questionable cost-cutting move, and the native of nearby Gilroy has bounced to four teams in the last four seasons before leading the Bucs into the postseason.
“There are a lot of great times that took place for me out here,” said Garcia, whose father held a big tailgate party before the game. “I was very thankful for the five years that I had here in San Francisco.”
Though 49ers coach Mike Nolan’s job is in jeopardy for his club’s 3-10 start, he’s a master of lost-season motivation. Heading into next week’s finale at Cleveland, the Niners are 6-2 in the final three weeks of his three campaigns with the club.
Hill, the six-year veteran who had never thrown a pass before this month, went just 11-for-24 in his second NFL start after beating Cincinnati last week. He calmly managed an offense focused on Gore, who rushed for 89 yards to clinch his second straight 1,000-yard season.
“This makes it tough, because now we’re playing great ball,” Gore said. “Early on in the season, we couldn’t move the ball at all. Now we’re really getting it done.”
Tampa Bay outgained San Francisco 434-213. … Clements wasn’t penalized for celebrating his interception by banging on a drum behind the 49ers’ end zone. … Bucs WR Joey Galloway surpassed 1,000 yards receiving for the season, making him the first Tampa Bay receiver with three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. He also aggravated a shoulder injury.