Cowboys Nation was in despair. With the untested and untrusted Cooper Rush at the helm, it was thought to be a bridge to far to keep the winning streak alive. But behind a remarkable 24 for 40, 325-yard performance with two touchdowns and one interception from the backup, the Dallas Cowboys fought to a thrilling 20-16 win over the Minnesota Vikings and put themselves right in the thick of the hunt for the first-round seed and a bye.
In a game where many assumed the outcome was foregone, the Cowboys still managed to get the ball with 2:51 left in the game and trailing by only three. That alone was a somewhat remarkable achievement for the untested backup quarterback. With the help of a remarkable rebound catch by Amari Cooper, they drove down the field and almost immediately got into field goal range. And under pressure, Rush delivered to Cooper again, who was his best target of the night. The touchdown gave the Cowboys a four-point lead with just 51 seconds left and the Vikings out of timeouts. They were unable to move, and the win belonged to the Cowboys.
After a week of rumors and reports, the insiders who said Dak Prescott would not be playing this game turned out to be right. Rush got his first career start. And while he made some questionable throws, he was not the immediate disaster so many feared. He was only 10 for 17 in the first half for 110 yards, but had one pick. It was, of course, made by former Cowboy Xavier Woods. Fortunately, the Cowboys forced a punt after that. Still, the Cowboys were able to move the ball, and had a slight edge in total yards of 168 to 145, while holding the ball for 18:35.
Defensively Dallas let Kirk Cousins march right down the field after the opening kickoff to take a 7-0 lead, but tightened up considerably after that. Micah Parsons looked good, but the pass rush could not get home on Cousins. Special teams had a major letdown when the Cowboys were about to get a three and out. An offsides penalty kept the drive alive, and it resulted in a field goal.
Dallas had one major scoring threat but once again stalled once they got to the 20, and were only able to get a field goal. With an earlier miss by Greg Zuerlein, the halftime score was 10-3. And the Cowboys got the ball first in the second half. Given all the doom and gloom, it was not a bad place for them to be.
While Rush was at least competent, the running game was not doing much for Dallas. Ezekiel Elliott finished the first half with just 37 yards while Tony Pollard chipped in 25. They had no long runs. That put more pressure on Rush to get the job done. One thing that showed up early was a reverse wishbone formation with both Connor McGovern and La’el Collins lined up ahead of the running back. It didn’t show up much after the first quarter though. A bigger development was an ankle injury to Tyron Smith that put Ty Nsekhe at left tackle.
As a side note, the time management battle at the end of the first half was won by Mike McCarthy, who called a timeout to get the ball back with plenty of time. It didn’t lead to anything as Rush was unable to move the team. Then Mike Zimmer failed to use his lone remaining timeout in the final 20 seconds or so, which was just a waste of the timeout.
Things started looking up significantly for the Cowboys when Rush dropped back on the drive after the second half kickoff. It was third and eight after a short run and an incomplete pass. Rush dropped a perfect ball to Cedrick Wilson at the 50, and he outmaneuvered the defensive backs to run it into the end zone, and just like that the game was tied at 10 apiece.
One issue that was consistent on both sides of halftime was that Kellen Moore kept calling runs on first down, and they were just not succeeding. Most of them seemed to just go for two yards, increasing that pressure on Rush. It also meant the Dallas defense had to hold up against Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook. With Trevon Diggs not having his best night, getting beaten pretty badly once and drawing flags, it was dicey at times. They managed to get stops at crucial times, but as the game wore on, so did their time on the field. Still, they limited the Vikings to a field goal attempt in the third quarter after a good stand.
With the lack of effectiveness of the Cowboys’ ground game, Mike Zimmer kept dialing up the pressure on Rush. His inexperience showed up as he had to throw several balls away. Kellen Moore needed to find something, and he dug into his bag of tricks late in the third quarter. Rush made a backwards pass to Cedrick Wilson. It looked like a failed play at first as Wilson had to avoid pressure, but he rolled to his right and just flicked the ball to CeeDee Lamb for a 35-yard reception. Dallas would only get a field goal out of the drive, but it gave them a tie game to start the fourth quarter.
One thing that was very favorable for Rush was how effective he was on third down. He was very good at overcoming those second and long situations after failed run plays on first down. Dallas at one point in the fourth quarter had converted six of thirteen third downs, while the Cowboys defense really put the clamps on the Vikings, who were held to one of eleven, including ten failed in a row. That helped them neutralize the fumble by Rush (forced by, you know who, Woods) and gave Dallas decent field position at their own 32 after a short punt. But the third down magic failed and after they punted it back, a very questionable roughing the passer on Tarell Basham kept a drive alive for Minnesota. Another personal foul, also a bit shaky, on Randy Gregory pushed them into the red zone, and then he was flagged a second time for a late hit when it certainly seemed like he could not hear the whistle and Cook was still fighting to keep moving. That got the defense fired up, and they held the Vikings to a 24-yard field goal, setting up the final act of the game.
There were plenty of heroes for the Cowboys in the game besides Rush. Cooper would lead all receivers with 122 yards and a touchdown, while Lamb would have 112 yards. Micah Parsons was the big hammer on defense, racking up 11 tackles, including four for a loss. Ezekiel Elliott was largely bottled up most of the game, but his 15-yard pass reception on third and eleven kept the winning touchdown drive alive.
But no one stood bigger than Cooper Rush. Let his legend begin.
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