SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Bilal Powell scanned the crowd, anxious to deliver a special handoff himself.
He wasn’t searching for anyone in particular, just a random kid clad in Jets gear who might be young and impressionable, as he was years ago. In the aftermath of his big moment Sunday — a 19-yard touchdown run in overtime — Powell could think only of the impact one brief encounter could have on someone else.
“I gave [the ball] to a little kid in the stands,” said the backup running back, whose two rushing touchdowns were the difference in the Jets’ 23-17 win over the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. “Coming up and looking up to role models, certain things like that go a long way with you in life.”
Matt Forte’s first-quarter knee injury paved the way for Powell to shine. He didn’t disappoint, picking up 145 yards on 29 carries.
“He did a yeoman’s job,” said coach Todd Bowles, who doesn’t dole out praise lightly. “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if we would have even won this game. He single-handedly, from my point of view at least, broke every tackle he could break. He caught every ball. He ran. He blocked. He did everything. And he had outstanding effort.”
After falling behind 14-0 just 4:15 into the game, the Jets improved to 4-9. With each victory down the stretch, they cost themselves a shot at a higher draft pick. The players, however, don’t seem remotely interested in tanking.
“I’m going to fight until there’s zeros on the clock,” said quarterback Bryce Petty, who bounced back from throwing an interception on his first pass attempt that set up the 49ers’ first touchdown only 63 seconds into the game.
“What was great about this win tonight was we all did it. This season obviously hasn’t gone the way we’ve wanted it to, but to see a game like that on the road and just fight, grit, scratch, claw, whatever you do, that’s a big win for that locker room.”
After trailing the 49ers (1-12) by two touchdowns for most of the game, the Jets mounted a comeback capped by a tying 50-yard field goal by Nick Folk with 38 seconds left in regulation. And after allowing the 49ers’ Carlos Hyde to gash them for almost 200 rushing yards, the Jets’ defense showed up in overtime, stopping him on a critical fourth-down run.
Petty — who made his first start since Bowles gave him the job for the final four games of the season — finished strong after a slow start. He completed 23 of 35 passes for 257 yards and was sacked six times. His 26-yard hookup with rookie Robby Anderson, which put the ball at the 49ers’ 25, helped to set up Powell’s winning score.
In typical fashion, the underrated and understated running back was quick to praise others — such as Petty, whom Powell called “a great human being” who works hard every day; the offensive line, which “made it easier for me,” and even the injured Forte, “who could’ve been the one with the big game” had he not gotten hurt, he said.
But in the locker room, teammates raved about Powell, who gave the offense new life with a 5-yard touchdown run with 5:04 left in regulation. The score cut the 49ers’ lead to 17-12 and set up Petty’s run for a two-point conversion — the first for the Jets since Mark Sanchez connected with Braylon Edwards against the Patriots in 2010. (The Jets failed on their previous six two-point tries.)
But when the spotlight found Powell on the field, he was busy looking for someone else in the stands.
“I was just looking for a kid,” said Powell, who recalled receiving an autograph from fellow Florida native and Super Bowl champion Derrick Brooks years ago at a high school football game in his hometown of Lakeland, Florida.
“And I saw him and he looked surprised,” he said of the young Jets fan. “Hopefully, it encourages him to work hard and he will do it for someone else.”
Bilal Powell’s numbers in only the second 100-yard rushing game of his 71-game NFL career: