SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Cam Newton threw two touchdown passes, Graham Gano kicked three field goals and the Carolina Panthers rode a dominant defensive performance to a 23-3 season-opening victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
The Panthers ruined the debut of 49ers first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Carolina sacked San Francisco quarterback Brian Hoyer four times. Wes Horton had a strip-sack of Hoyer, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted a pass. Carolina turned both turnovers into touchdowns.
Newton completed 14 of 25 passes for 171 yards with a 40-yard touchdown to Russell Sheppard and a 9-yard scoring strike to Jonathan Stewart. He was intercepted once.
Panthers rookie Christian McCaffrey rushed for 47 yards with a fumble on 13 carries and caught five passes for 38 yards in his NFL debut.
Hoyer went 24 of 35 for 193 yards and an interception in his 49ers debut. Pierre Garcon had six catches for 81 yards in his first game for San Francisco.
The Panthers struck first when Newton hit Sheppard on a 40-yard touchdown strike down the left sideline with 3:00 left in the first quarter. Sheppard broke Jaquiski Tartt’s tackle attempt at the 15 and sprinted into the end zone.
Carolina’s defense set up the touchdown. Horton had a blind-side sack of Hoyer, forcing a fumble, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei recovered at the 49ers’ 42. Three plays later, Newton hit Sheppard.
The Panthers increased their lead to 10-0 with 3:23 left in the first half on Gano’s 39-yard field goal. Once again, Carolina’s defense made a big play to set up the score.
Facing fourth-and-4 from the Carolina 44, Hoyer dropped back to pass but was sacked by blitzing linebacker Thomas Davis for an 8-yard loss. Six plays later from the 49ers’ 21, Newton overthrew wide-open tight end Ed Dickson in the end zone, and the Panthers settled for a field goal.
Carolina got the ball back when Horton and Lotulelei combined to stuff 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Panthers’ 45.
The Panthers marched 37 yards in eight plays for Gano’s 36-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
On the first drive of the second half, Kuechly intercepted Hoyer’s pass over the middle and returned it 23 yards to the 49ers’ 28. That set up Newton’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Stewart as Carolina increased its lead to 20-0 with 11:24 left in the third quarter.
Gano made it 23-0 with a 20-yard field goal with 3:11 left in the third.
The 49ers scored with eight seconds left in the third quarter on Robbie Gould’s 44-yard field goal.
The 49ers had fourth-and-goal from the 1 midway through the fourth quarter, but Davis stopped Carlos Hyde for no gain.
NOTES: 49ers starting OLB Reuben Foster, a rookie first-round pick out of Alabama, injured his right ankle with 3:33 left in the first quarter while making a tackle and was carted to the locker room. Foster walked back to the bench with a slight limp early in the second quarter, but did not return to action. Ray-Ray Armstrong replaced him in the lineup. … 49ers FS Jimmie Ward (strained hamstring) was inactive and Jaquiski Tartt started in his place. … 49ers G Laken Tomlinson, who was acquired from Detroit in a trade on Aug. 31, was inactive. … Panthers K Harrison Butker, one of two kickers on Carolina’s roster, was inactive. K Graham Gano handled all the kicking duties.