With Ben DiNucci making his first career start at quarterback, the Dallas Cowboys knew they would need to do all they could to help the rookie in this Sunday night showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles.
And while they did their best with trick plays and an opportunistic defense, in the end, the effort wasn't enough as the Cowboys fell to their NFC East rivals, 23-9.
The Dallas defense came up with some timely plays throughout the night, finishing with four takeaways in the game, which was more than the three they'd totaled in the first seven games combined. Their three takeaways in the first half also equaled their most in a half since Nov. 30, 2017 against Washington.
But those four takeaways led to only three points, the Cowboys offense unable to take advantage of the Philadelphia gifts. Which in the end helped lead to the team's demise. The defense held the Eagles to just 222 yards of total offense. The problem was DiNucci and the Dallas offensive unit mustered just 265 total yards themselves and failed to get into the end zone. Since Dak Prescott was lost for the season due to injury, the team has earned only one touchdown in their last three games.
Neither quarterback was sharp, although with DiNucci, that was probably expected. Sacked four times, he finished with 180 passing yards, completing 52.5 percent of his attempts for a passer rating of 64.6.
On the other hand, Wentz has built up a good résumé as the second overall pick in 2016 now in his fifth NFL season. Yet, he wasn't much better than the rookie, totaling 123 passing yards while completing 55.6 percent of his tries. He did toss two touchdown passes but also had two interceptions for a 61.2 passer rating.
There was hope early on as the Cowboys opened the game with a nine-play, 47-yard drive that resulted in a 49-yard field goal. DiNucci looked confident, completing 2 of 3 passes, with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore breaking out the gadget plays by using a reverse and the "Wildcat" with Ezekiel Elliott in the shotgun, a formation he would use throughout the night.
And when safety Donovan Wilson then followed that with a takedown of the Eagles quarterback, knocking the ball loose and recovering it at the Philadelphia 25-yard line, the Cowboys appeared to be in real business.
But, they couldn't take advantage because soon thereafter, the Cowboys returned the turnover favor. On second-and-goal at the 7-yard line, Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham burst around rookie right tackle Terence Steele and sacked DiNucci, forcing a fumble himself that was recovered by the home side.
That was the beginning of a 10-play, 83-yard drive that saw Philadelphia reach the end zone for the first time on the night. Wentz completed 5 of 6 passes for 55 yards, the big blow a 32-yard completion to wideout Travis Fulgham. Rookie wide receiver Jalen Reagor got the scoring honors, his first NFL touchdown coming on a 2-yard completion.
Now down 7-3 heading into the second quarter, the Dallas defense produced two more takeaways in the frame, but the offense just couldn't get much going. Still, they went into the half with a two-point lead.
The first takeaway came when linebacker Leighton Vander Esch exploded through the line and put a big hit on Wentz, forcing another fumble that was recovered by Dorance Armstrong at the Philly 46-yard line. DiNucci and company were then able to at least get back into Greg Zuerlein's range, the kicker splitting the uprights again from 49 yards out to close the gap to one.
Then with less than three minutes remaining in the quarter and the Eagles threatening at the Dallas 34-yard line, rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs made a beautiful diving catch in the end zone, getting a shin just in bounds to record his first career interception. But the Cowboys couldn't move the chains, forced to punt.
Shockingly, though, Dallas got one more opportunity with the ball before the half ended. Stopping the Eagles on a fourth-and-1, the Cowboys took over at their own 45-yard line with 29 seconds on the clock. After managing to get to the Philadelphia 44, they figured why not, and sent Zuerlein out for a 59-yard attempt with 10 seconds remaining.
And sure enough, the kicker's low, line-drive attempt curved sharply through the goalposts for another three points, giving Dallas a remarkable 9-7 lead at the break.
The Cowboys had a chance to add to their score just after halftime when Diggs gathered in his second interception of the game. His two picks marked the first time a Cowboys rookie defenseman had two interceptions in a game since linebacker Sean Lee had a pair at Indianapolis on Dec. 5, 2010. It was also the first multi-pick game by a freshman cornerback since Terence Newman grabbed three at Washington on Dec. 14, 2003.
Sticking with the ground game, the Cowboys were able to get into field goal range, but alas, this time Zuerlein's 52-yard try sailed wide right.
Even worse, the Eagles now had decent field position, taking over at their own 42-yard line. Nine plays later they were in the end zone, Wentz lofting a 9-yard touchdown pass to Fulgham for the score. Good on the two point conversion, Philadelphia was back in the lead, this time for good, 15-9.
The Cowboys marched into Eagles territory three more times in the fourth quarter, but failed to earn any points. The first time saw the team unable to convert on a fourth-and-2 at the Philadelphia 35-yard line, DiNucci's scrambling pass tipped and falling incomplete.
But disaster struck on the next possession when on third-and-6 at the Eagles' 21-yard line, Philly came on an all-out blitz, overpowering the Cowboys offensive line and easily sacking DiNucci, who fumbled. The ball appeared recovered right there by the Eagles, but the officials never ruled the ball dead. Thus, Philadelphia safety Rodney McLeod picked up the prize and raced 53 yards for the touchdown.
The Cowboys tried a little more trickery late in the affair. Faced with a fourth down at their own 11-yard line, they intentionally hiked the ball through the end zone for a safety. Then on Chris Jones' ensuing punt, he booted it sky high, but not very far, basically an onside kick. Dallas had a shot to fall on the ball, but it was the Eagles who came up with it at the bottom of the scrum.
Dallas got one more try late in the game and made it down to the Philadelphia 15-yard line, but the final pass attempt came up far short of the goal line, time running out on any hopes of a comeback.
With that, the Cowboys losing streak stretched to three straight games, their record falling to 2-6 on the year with the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers up next. Meaning DiNucci or whoever is behind center will need to figure out a way to get the offense going and fast.