MINNEAPOLIS — On one hand, Cooper Rush wasn’t fazed.
The Cowboys backup quarterback had studied this offensive system since 2017, cycling through reps of the playbook in practice and training camp and preseason games. He didn’t expect the speed of the NFL game to ambush him like it might a rookie; after all, Rush has received a check from NFL teams for the better part of five years now.
Still, the opportunity that Rush received Sunday night was the culmination of a dream he both never gave him up on and also couldn’t guarantee.
Because last October, Rush watched most NFL games from his couch.
“It’s pretty special,” he said
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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush (10) throws a pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Minneapolis.
Since the Cowboys signed Rush in 2017 as an undrafted free agent, the Central Michigan product kept tabs: How many games, as the second-string to durable Dak Prescott, did Rush prepare physically and mentally for yet never play? The count hovers around 50, Rush’s career stats amounting to 1 completion, 3 pass attempts and 6 contests in which he saw garbage-time opportunities since 2017. The Cowboys have carried him most of that stretch, releasing him for just a few months in 2020 when veteran Andy Dalton signed a team-friendly deal. Rush returned to the Cowboys after Prescott and Dalton were both unavailable in late October 2020, but he never took the field.
So this week was meaningful for Rush’s family. Prescott’s ability to play through a calf strain remained a game-time decision, but signs pointed toward Rush’s opportunity.
First-team practice reps this week created “more sense of ‘this is real’ than usual,” Rush said. Rush’s parents, brothers, wife and 6-month-old daughter (left with babysitter during the nighttime contest) traveled to Minneapolis during the occasion.
The Rush family traveled home celebrating their son, husband and father’s 325-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 20-16 win over the Vikings. The Cowboys win streak extended to six.
“It wasn’t crazy,” said Rush, whom teammates laud as epitomizing the neutral mindset the team often emphasizes. “I felt like I belonged out there. You’re in the huddle, breaking the O-line, going through your processes. It didn’t feel overwhelming at all.
“It never felt too big in terms of the speed. I just felt in command. Playing with those guys I get to play out there – just go down the list. O-line, running back, receiver. It just makes my job a lot easier.”
Rush’s rapport with those teammates was evident.
His debut start was by no means perfect, Rush completing 24 of 40 passes and mixing in an interception and a sack-fumble with his successful strikes. His precision was inconsistent, decision-making riskier than preferred, especially when throwing over the middle. Rush took a costly sack, for a loss of 10 yards, that pinned Dallas at its own 8 and left the team to punt halfway through the third quarter with the game tied.
But Rush nonetheless completed passes to seven different teammates, connecting on more than 100 yards’ worth of targets to receiver Amari Cooper (8-of-13 targets, 122 yards) and CeeDee Lamb (6-of-8, 112) amid a booming purple U.S. Bank Stadium crowd. And his first NFL career touchdown, a 73-yard touchdown to open the second half, was one to remember.
“I can’t say enough about Cooper being ready to jump in there,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Productive, did an excellent job, commanded the offense.”
The first half was shaky, Rush completing 10 of 17 pass attempts but failing to bring the Cowboys inside the 20. Vikings safeties teamed up to intercept one of Rush’s first-half passes; and another would-be interception was dropped. The Cowboys extended drives to the tune of 7 more minutes’ possession than the Vikings had. But those four first-half possessions combined to notch just 3 points. Could the second half be stronger?
A 2-yard Ezekiel Elliott run and a too-low incompletion to tight end Dalton Schultz didn’t breed optimism. But then, on the Cowboys’ third play of the series, Rush dropped back and saw receiver Cedrick Wilson split the safeties in the Vikings’ Cover-2 defense. This was a play the Cowboys had practiced all week, against a defensive look identical to that which they anticipated. Rush wound up and muscled the ball up the middle, thinking to himself: “Get in there, Ced. Get in there.” Wilson caught the pass in stride 23 yards downfield then raced the remaining 50 yards after the catch.
The Cowboys sideline went crazy.
“That’s what the first touchdown does,” said Prescott, who celebrated enthusiastically. “Big third down, being able to catch the defense the position we wanted them to be in and the play. Coop just dialed up a perfect ball to Ced, and Ced did the rest.
“It was a great momentum for us.”
Dallas would need that.
Even as the Cowboys defense allowed the Vikings to convert merely 1 of 13 third-down attempts, Dallas’ offense struggled to find home again. Former Cowboys defensive end Everson Griffen’s sack of Rush forced a three-and-out on the next drive; incompletions and bit plays would limit the next to a punt and a field goal. The fourth quarter seemed more promising, Rush finding Lamb, Cooper and receiver Noah Brown for double-digit gains on three of the first four snaps of a drive. But another ex-Cowboys player, safety Xavier Woods, apparently wasn’t content with just an interception. Woods blitzed from the left and knocked the ball loose from Rush. Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr recovered.
The Cowboys defense promptly forced a three-and-out.
It was in the game’s final three minutes, when the Cowboys received the ball back trailing by 3, that Rush demonstrated his command. Again, the precision and chemistry weren’t Prescott-caliber: Rush missed Lamb on a short pass in tight coverage near the left sideline and then threw a slightly ill-timed pass to Cooper down the right sideline. The ball eluded Cooper’s initial grasp, bouncing off cornerback Harrison Hand’s frame. But Cooper locked in to swipe it from the air, ultimately completing a 33-yard play.
Cooper had assured Rush of such outcomes, imploring the quarterback to trust his matchups outside. Cooper said he told Rush on repeat: “These guys can’t guard us.” As the two-minute warning sounded, Cooper was determined to keep proving it.
The Cowboys lined up for just their second red-zone snap of the day with 1:51 to play, Rush’s family now standing in their seats as nerves made the more-passive sitting unbearable. A penalty and a tackle for loss put the Cowboys behind the chains until on third-and-11, 1:04 to play, Rush stayed calm in the face of swarming defenders to nail Elliott, who barreled for the first down.
Rush then called a play with Cooper in mind, the veteran receiver confident even as he returned to the field from a sideline visit to massage his injured hamstring. Second-year Lamb lobbied for his own touchdown opportunity, but Cooper demurred.
“I said, ‘Hell, nah,’” Cooper said.
Rush says he didn’t fathom a handoff on the run-pass option play.
“I saw single high, one-on-one with Coop(er),” Rush said. “We’re throwing it in that situation.”
The Cowboys were also winning it.
The Cowboys have not ruled out Prescott for next week’s game at home against the Broncos, his calf strain close enough to workable that he went through a full 38-minute warmup Sunday afternoon before the final decision was called. But the Cowboys – whose 6-1 record bests every NFL team but the Packers, Cardinals and Rams – now know better both what their backup quarterback can provide and how resilient their team is when faced with injuries, a trailing record and a raucous road environment in prime time.
“This is definitely a gut-check win for us,” McCarthy said. “It just confirmed (our) ability to fight through adversity. This bunch has a lot of character. They’re tight. They enjoy one another.
“They just don’t blink.”
Count Rush atop the list of players who never flinched in the contest, the play not always clean but the result ultimately what he hoped for in years of preparing for this opportunity.
“You wait a long time,” Rush said. “You definitely dream about (this). It’s just as good as the dreams.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys: How Cooper Rush went from couch to clutch at QB