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Eventful day ends in tie for Rams' Hekker, Jackson

SAN FRANCISCO — Show up an at NFL game on any Sunday afternoon and you might wind up seeing something both suspenseful and weird.

There are other adjectives to describe the San Francisco-St. Louis game at Candlestick Park, which ended in a 24-24 deadlock.

“Crazy,” said Rams running back Steven Jackson, a nine-year pro of the first NFL game that wasn’t decided after a 15-minute overtime in four years. “First tie game of my career.”

It may have felt like a loss to the 49ers, who at 6-2-1 are one of a handful of teams hopeful of a spot in the Super Bowl next February. It absolutely felt like one to the 3-5-1 Rams, who had “an awful lot of chances to win,” said Jeff Fisher, their first-year coach. “Especially in overtime.”

Such as an 80-yard bomb from Sam Bradford to Danny Amendola to the San Francisco 2-yard line that was belatedly called back by a penalty for illegal formation. Or later, a 53-yard game-winning field goal by Greg Zuerlein that was nullified by a delay-of-game infraction.

The latter was the fault of Johnny Hekker, the rookie punter and holder out of Oregon State, who is responsible for making sure the snap gets off in time on place-kicks.

“Johnny just lost track of the time,” Fisher said. “That’s OK. Well, it’s not OK. But he was focused on Greg and focused on protection and time ran out on us.”

Hekker was disconsolate over the error that wiped away the game-winning kick. Moved five yards back after the delay penalty, Zuerlein’s subsequent 58-yard attempt was short and wide right.

“Greg said he gave me the head nod at four seconds (before the play clock expired),” Hekker said. “We’ve never had a nod-to-hand flash take more than four seconds. I’m still puzzled how that happened. Greg nailed it — great kick — and they took it away.

“I hurt our team today. I let that delay happen. I’m going to take this as a learning experience and work to get better next time.”

Hekker was involved in more key plays Sunday than most punters are in a season.

There was a 13-yard punt that surely reminded Beaver Nation of a couple he shanked in his senior season, including the one that traveled minus-4 yards against Wisconsin. “I’d like to have that one back,” Hekker said through a grimace.

His other four punts averaged 44.7 yards, though. And he may have set NFL single-game records for most passes completed off fake punt plays (two) and deepest a team has tried one in its own territory (10-yard line).

The first came near the end of the first half, with St. Louis — ahead 14-7 — facing a fourth-and-4 from its 10. Hekker, standing in punt formation in the Rams’ end zone, fired a strike on a “hot read” toward the sideline to gunner Rodney McLeod, who took the pass 21 yards for a first down.

“It was something the 49ers did that was unsound that left our gunner wide open,” said Hekker, who made the fake-punt decision himself. “They didn’t get out to the box to cover him. It was something that we were ready for. Rodney did a great job of catching the ball and getting some yards.

“If you see something in the other team that’s not sound, you make them pay for it.”

The second came in the fourth quarter with St. Louis trailing 21-17 and facing a fourth-and-8 on the Rams’ 33. Hekker took the snap, rolled left and floated a pass to Lance Kendricks for 19 yards and a crucial first down.

“That one was called from the sidelines,” Hekker said. “It was the brainchild of coaches Fisher and (special teams coach John) Fassel.

“We’ve been practicing that one for a while. It worked just as we’d drawn it up in practice. It was great to get a perfect execution.”

Hekker is now 3-for-3 in passes off fake punts this season. The first one tried by the 6-5, 225-pound former prep quarterback out of Bothell, Wash., produced a touchdown in an early-season win over Seattle.

That Hekker is in the NFL is a story in itself. An undrafted free agent, Hekker made the team with a strong performance during the preseason and entered Sunday’s game ranked among the league’s top 10 punters in gross average (49.0, fourth) and net average (41.4, ninth).

“Not many people get this opportunity,” Hekker said. “I’m blessed to be in this locker room. I’m taking full advantage of every moment I can.

“But I’m pretty disappointed in how I performed today. I have a lot to prove week in and week out. I’m going to keep working and make sure I’m helping this team win games and not costing us games.”

The Rams’ other player who calls Oregon State his college team had his biggest game of the season Sunday. Jackson had season highs in carries (29) and rushing yardage (101) and a touchdown in surpassing the 100-yard mark for the first time this season and the 32nd time in his stellar career.

It has been a less than fulfilling season for Jackson, 29, who after years as a marquee running back in St. Louis has split time with rookie Daryl Richardson.

Going into Sunday’s game, Jackson ranked 25th in the league in rushing with 403 yards in 108 attempts a 3.7-yard average, for only one TD. Richardson had rushed 62 times for 335 yards and no scores.

Averaging fewer than 14 carries a game might seem like comeuppance for a player working on a seven-year string of 1,000-yard seasons, but Jackson isn’t going to complain.

“Every week I go in thinking I need to take advantage of the opportunities,” the 6-3, 240-pound Jackson said. “If it’s going to be seven carries or whatever, I have to make my carries count and be impactful on the game.”

Jackson was that way Sunday. There was a dump pass on third-and-13 that he bulled through three tacklers for 14 yards and a first down. And a 12-yard run around the right side where he lost his helmet and was still churning for extra real estate.

“Steven is ... Steven,” Fisher said afterward. “He plays with such heart and passion. I enjoy standing on the sidelines, watching him play. Glad he’s on our team.”

But maybe not for long. After this season, Jackson has one year left on a six-year contract he signed before the 2008 campaign. There were certain incentives Jackson had to meet in order to opt out of the deal early and become a free agent.

With the move to gradually work Richardson into the mix at tailback, St. Louis officials told Jackson they would waive the incentives and grant him free agency if he desires following this season.

“The organization has a great deal of respect for me,” Jackson said. “Business is business. I totally understand that. They’ve allowed me the opportunity to opt out after this year. I haven’t exercised that. But if I want to become a free agent, they’ve given me the blessing.

“It’s a testament to what I’ve been through and how they regard me as a class act. I can only thank the Rams for that.”

It doesn’t mean Jackson — the franchise’s career rushing leader with 9,597 yards, ahead of such luminaries as Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk — won’t be back with the Rams next season. The chance to be one of the rare stars who played his entire career with one team has some appeal, even if the Rams have been losers throughout most of Jackson’s time with them.

“You want to win,” he said. “You want to play in the Super Bowl. But it would mean a lot, too, to finish my career with one team.”

Jackson has stayed healthy so far this season, looks great and says he feels great. He figures with the kind of shape he’s in, he can play for another half-dozen years or so.

“Maybe have a Marcus Allen kind of thing,” he said with a smile.

Jackson is moving up the NFL’s career rushing list. He ranks 28th at the moment. The next runner he’ll pick off is the great Joe Perry (9,723). Soon after that will come the 10,000-yard barrier.

“It’s a blessing,” Jackson said. “You go into the NFL, you think you just want to have a good career. And as the numbers have piled up, it’s amazing what I’ve been able to accomplish.”

Though they’re of different eras, Hekker, 22, and Jackson share an alma mater.

“Whenever they have a big win, me and him are all smiles in the locker room, saying, ‘How ‘bout them Beavers?’ " Hekker said. “It’s a common thread we share.”

Hekker said he admires Jackson as “one of the premier running backs in the NFL” and a team leader. After Sunday’s game, Jackson had a few thoughtful words for his rookie teammate.

“I always remind young guys, if you have a bad game, you have to remain even-keel in your emotions,” Jackson said. “You have to build on success but be able to pick yourself up when the lows come.

“Johnny’s done a great job for us this year. This is something he’ll learn from. He has a lot of football left.”