MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Hughes talked before his NFL debut Sunday, Sept. 9, about scoring a touchdown on a kickoff return. He settled for one on an interception.
The rookie cornerback broke the game open with a 28-yard return for a TD early in the third quarter, and that propelled the Vikings to a 24-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the opener at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Hughes’ touchdown put the Vikings up 17-3. They increased the lead to 24-6 late in the third quarter before the 49ers made it interesting by scoring 10 straight points.
The win was clinched when safety Harrison Smith intercepted a Jimmy Garoppolo pass and returned it 14 yards to the Minnesota 15 with 1:35 remaining. It was the last of four turnovers forced by the vaunted Minnesota defense, including three interceptions of Garoppolo.
The big one came from Hughes, who was playing left outside cornerback after practicing all week at nickel back. He had to move to the outside in the second half after Trae Waynes was lost because of a knee injury, and safety Jayron Kearse took over the nickel role.
“I give a lot of credit to the defensive line,’’ Hughes said of the pick-six. “They got good pressure and forced Garoppolo to throw a bad ball.’’
The turnovers took plenty of pressure off Minnesota’s offense. Regardless, it ended up doing enough for Mike Zimmer’s coaching record in openers to improve to 4-1.
In his Vikings debut, quarterback Kirk Cousins completed 20 of 36 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Adam Thielen caught six passes for 102 yards. And running back Dalvin Cook, playing his first regular-season game since suffering a torn ACL last October, had 16 carries for 40 yards and six receptions for 55 yards.
“Obviously, when you have a defense like ours, it takes a lot of anxiety away from the offense, so we know we can just go out there and be ourselves and play football,’’ Thielen said. “We know they’re going to create turnovers.’’
The Vikings had just one turnover, a second-quarter fumble by Cook. Without a plus-three turnover margin, the game might have turned out differently.
“Takeaways are always huge,’’ said linebacker Anthony Barr. “It was a point of emphasis for us all offseason, and we were able to do that.’’
The first takeaway came with the Vikings leading 10-3 and the 49ers facing second-and-goal at the 1 late in the second quarter. Nose tackle Linval Joseph hit running back Alfred Morris, the ball popped loose, and Smith recovered.
Hughes’ interception was the next one. The Vikings added two more interceptions of Garoppolo in the fourth quarter, the first one snagged by Rhodes.
The Vikings pressured Garoppolo throughout the game, including sacking him three times.
“Their quarterback definitely feels that whether they like to admit it or not,’’ Barr said. “Any time you get guys in your face, it affects you.’’
Garoppolo did acknowledge the Vikings “are a talented group” and the 49ers knew it would be “tough challenge.’’
Cousins also was sacked three times. The Vikings have had their share of offensive line issues, with guard Nick Easton out for the season, and with Brett Jones, acquired two weeks ago from the New York Giants, filling in at center Sunday for injured Pat Elfein. But Cousins was able to buy time with some bootlegs.
“I thought he played well,’’ Zimmer said. “Especially early, he made some good throws. The two touchdown passes were great throws.’’
Cousins hit Stefon Diggs with a 22-yard TD pass early in the second quarter for a 10-0 lead. He later put the Vikings up 24-6 on an 11-yard throw to Kyle Rudolph late in the third quarter, and then ran into the end zone to celebrate with the tight end.
“We work so hard and we’ve been waiting for a game, a real game for a long time now,’’ Cousins said. “When things click and you make a play, that part of me comes out, allowing yourself to have a little fun.’’
It was a bit less fun after that for the Vikings. The 49ers got a 22-yard TD pass from Garoppolo to Dante Pettis to close the deficit to 24-13 in the final minute of the third quarter, and they got within 24-16 on a 22-yard field goal by Robbie Gould with 8:09 remaining.
“It was good that we had some adversity in the football game (and to) find the heart that we had there at the end.” Zimmer said.
Nevertheless, Thielen figures there’s still more the offense can do to help the defense.
“I think now it’s kind of our turn to kind of pay that back and make sure that we’re putting up points and taking some pressure off them,” he said.