MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Cooper Rush might have been making his first career NFL start Sunday night inside a deafening U.S. Bank Stadium, but he's no rookie.
That's what Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore reminded Rush before he took the field against the Minnesota Vikings as the fill-in starter for Dak Prescott, a game-time scratch with a right calf strain.
"Kellen told me before the game, 'It's stuff you've been running since 2017,'" Rush said. "And it is. Same plays."
The offense started slow. The Cowboys (6-1) didn't score a point in the first quarter for the first time all season and had a season-low three points at halftime. But Rush led them to 17 points in the second half, including his go-ahead touchdown pass to Amari Cooper on a 5-yard fade route with 51 seconds left that sealed Dallas' 20-16 comeback victory.
"I was glad everybody got to see that, because that's Cooper Rush," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think that's a real strength of him. He plays the quarterback position like a seasoned veteran that's played 10, 12 years in the league. That's the man I get to see every day.
"He was ready to go, and that's what the backup has to do: go in there every week and prepare because he's one play away from getting in there. I think his performance reflected that."
The Cowboys held out hope that Prescott could start Sunday, but the calf strain he suffered Oct. 17 against the New England Patriots limited his practice work during the week. He went through a pre-game workout at U.S. Bank Stadium, but ultimately the club decided to take a big-picture approach, not risking the chance of re-injury with 11 games left in the regular season.
Rush took all of the first-team reps and entered the game prepared. His 325 passing yards Sunday were the second most all-time by a Cowboys quarterback making his first career start. (Gary Hogeboom had 343 yards in his 1984 debut.)
They didn't come easy, though.
Rush's former Cowboys teammate, Vikings safety Xavier Woods, intercepted him on his seventh pass attempt at the start of the second quarter. A couple other throws were close calls, too.
To make matters worse, starting left tackle Tyron Smith exited with an aggravated ankle sprain and did not return to the game.
"I knew it was going to be a little bit of a moment until he (Rush) got settled in," McCarthy said. "That's normal coming over here. They've done a great job with their home-field environment. I thought once he got settled in, he ran the offense and handled the adjustments throughout the game."
That moment arrived at the start of the second half, when Rush hit Cedrick Wilson in stride for a 73-yard catch and run for a touchdown to tie the game 10-10.
Dirty rushing yards from Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard against loaded boxes kept the offense balanced. Multiple stops by the defense kept the game close.
And in the final three minutes, down 16-13, Rush led the offense 75 yards in eight plays for the deciding score. After two completions to Cooper for 33 and 18 yards, and a physical 15-yard catch and run by Elliott to convert a third-and-11, Rush saw a matchup he liked from the Vikings' 5- yard line.
"I saw single-high (coverage) one-on-one with Coop," Rush said.
On the deciding touchdown, Cooper just barely got both feet in bounds in the top-left corner of the end zone.
Minnesota couldn't answer in the final 51 seconds with no timeouts. The Cowboys had won their sixth straight game in the most improbable fashion yet.
Prescott, who watched the entire game from the Cowboys' sideline, gave Rush a huge hug after the final whistle.
"That's Coop," said Prescott, who might be back in the lineup as soon as next Sunday at home against the Denver Broncos. "He's very mild tempered and always that way – never too high or too low. It showed tonight. It allowed him to stay in there, stick to it, stick through some bad plays and come out and make some great plays to win the game that we needed in the fourth quarter."
The Cowboys signed Rush as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Save for a brief stint on the Giants' practice squad last season, he's been a backup to Prescott for most of his career. He won a tight training camp battle over Garrett Gilbert for the No. 2 job.
And Sunday, with his immediate family in attendance, Rush finally got his chance.
"It wasn't crazy. I felt like I belonged out there," he said. "We were in the huddle, breaking the huddle, getting in line and going through your processes, it didn't feel overwhelming at all. I haven't played a lot, but being around the NFL, you're going against those guys every day, and our defense is pretty good. You're going against those guys every day and it's not like you're not seeing things, so it never felt too big in terms of speed. I just felt in command.
"Playing with those guys that I get to play with out there, just go down the list – O-Line, running back, receiver – makes my job a lot easier."