TAMPA — All last week, the Bucs talked about dragging the 49ers into a bare-knuckle fight, staying close enough to win the game in the fourth quarter.
And they trailed by only six Sunday with 12:09 remaining in the game with San Francisco facing third and 12 from its 29.
But quarterback Colin Kaepernick escaped a heavy pass rush, rolled to his right and fired a 14-yard strike to receiver Michael Crabtree on the sideline for a first down.
Like most of the day, when it came to stopping Kaepernick, the Bucs were left grabbing fistfuls of air and reaching for passes that vanished like puffs of smoke.
Seven plays later, on third and 6, Kaepernick stepped out of the arms of linebacker Mason Foster and ran 10 yards to move the chains once again. The scrambles were part of a 10-minute, 27-second drive that resulted in a field goal and took the will out of the Bucs in what became a 33-14 loss before 64,142 at Raymond James Stadium.
"Kaepernick really put on his cape," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
"A couple of those conversions, how else can you describe them? There are not a lot of people that can make the plays he was making. He was making them with his feet, making them with his arm, making them with his head. Who's able to do that who is playing in this league? Very few guys."
Kaepernick needed to duck into a phone booth and emerge a superhero after the 49ers' lead was cut to 20-14 on the first play of the fourth quarter, rookie Mike Glennon's 24-yard pass to tight end Tim Wright.
But the 17-play, 77-yard drive capped by Phil Dawson's 21-yard field goal increased the 49ers' lead to 23-14 with 4:27 left. It helped the 49ers hold the football just 10 seconds shy of 40 minutes overall.
It took only six seconds, however, for the Bucs to give away what was left of the game. On the ensuing kickoff, Russell Shepard lost the handle on an attempted handoff from Eric Page. Kendall Hunter returned the fumble 2 yards for a touchdown and a 30-14 lead.
The loss dropped the Bucs to 4-10 overall with games remaining at St. Louis next week and at New Orleans.
Coach Greg Schiano said he called for the reverse on the kickoff but the handoff should not have been attempted because the 49ers didn't take the bait.
"We were going to run a reverse if the opportunity presented itself the right way," Schiano said. "It didn't. We still ran it. It's okay. We made a mistake."
A lot of the focus following Sunday's game was on Kaepernick, the third-year pro who took over the starting job near midseason last year and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Ravens.
The 49ers entered the game as the league's worst passing offense. But against a Bucs defense that entered first in the NFL in interceptions, he completed 19 of 29 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns. He also scrambled for 39 yards on seven attempts.
"That's Kap," said Bucs safety Dashon Goldson, who spent his first six seasons with the Niners. "He can do whatever. He can throw. He can run. A lot of guys in the league can't do that. Like I tell everybody, once it's said and done, he will be one of the top quarterbacks in this league."
Of course, the problem again for the Bucs was their anemic offense. Tampa Bay's first five possessions netted 40 yards. If the 49ers weren't bottling up Glennon, the play-calling did.
Finally, the Bucs, down 17-0 with 1:47 left in the first half, took the shackles off Glennon. He went 5-for-6 in leading an 80-yard drive capped by his 11-yard bullet to Vincent Jackson in the end zone with 29 seconds left.
The Bucs liked it so much, they also let Glennon operate in the no-huddle on a drive that started with 3:55 left in the third. He responded with a 92-yard drive and cut the 49ers' lead to 20-14 on a 24-yard pass to Wright.
Outside of those touchdown drives, the Bucs had 11 total net yards and two first downs.
"The only way we moved the ball is when we went to two-minute and no-huddle, and Mike was the one controlling the whole operation against, arguably, one of the top-three defenses in the league," Schiano said of Glennon, who finished 18-of-34 for 179 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Glennon also was sacked four times.
"We didn't perform in some areas," Schiano said. "But I thought Mike … gave us the spark."
But it was Kaepernick who lit it up Sunday.
"Who can make those plays?" Harbaugh said. "He can make them, and he made them today."
Boom and bust
The Bucs on their two TD drives compared with their other 10 drives Sunday with first downs, carries, rushing yards, passing and total yards:
|Drives||1st||Car.||yds.||Glennon passing||Tot. yds.|
|Two TDs||11||2||15||13-of-15, 145 yards||160|
|Other 10||2||10||14||5-of-19, 34 yards, 1 INT||48|