SANTA CLARA, Calif.– There was two minutes left.
The Cowboys led, 24-17.
The 49ers had the ball, third-and-6 at the Cowboys' 35-yard line. They had already driven 40 yards in five plays.
The game was on the line.
To that point, the Cowboys defense had stifled the San Francisco offense after surrendering two touchdown drives on the 49ers' first two possessions of the game, allowing them to take an early 14-0 lead. But after that, to this point, the Cowboys defense had stiffened, giving up just a field goal during the final seven San Fran possessions.
The Cowboys were switching defensive personnel. Guys were coming on, guys were coming off. And there he was, trotting onto the field, rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, the 21-year-old bundle of energy.
What the what? Did he want to play linebacker, too?
After all, to that point, Zeke had rushed 22 times for 136 yards. He scored another touchdown, his third on the year, and the Cowboys' eighth of the young season, as many rushing touchdowns as they had in all of 2015. He had gashed the 49ers defense that second half for 94 yards. But, he wasn't quite done yet.
He went out there shouting encouragement, patting one guy's hand after another as he passed them by. Got around the idle muddle, exhorting them on. This play or the next play could be the game.
"I don't know," Zeke said of what possessed maybe the youngest guy on the team to go out there geeking up his older teammates.
Now, this is not uncommon. I've seen Michael Irvin do this in the past. Can remember Tony Romo not only doing the same, but actually telling his defensive teammates to watch out for this or that, channeling what the opposing quarterback might do.
Those guys were veterans. This guy just got here.
"We needed that stop," Zeke said. "So I thought it was a good moment to do it."
Well, when play resumed, Byron Jones' tight coverage on Jeremy Kerley led to an incompletion.
Fourth down, still 6 yards to go. Now 1:56 left.
The Cowboys went with a three-man rush, counting on their coverage to shut down Blaine Gabbert. The coverage did, Gabbert, somewhat flushed out of the pocket, was forced to go underneath to Torrey Smith, and up came Morris Claiborne – he with the interception killing the Niners' previous drive – to make a solid tackle 3 yards short of the first down.
Ballgame, the Cowboys all zeeked up.
Now look, the point of this is not to suggest Elliott firing up the defense was the difference in the game. Not at all.
The point is: He was all in. He didn't care as much about rushing for 138 yards – afterward he had no idea just how many he did run for – as he did about so badly wanting to win. He cared about *his *team, the Cowboys winning three straight for the first time since the final four games of the 2014 season, sitting 3-1 now at the quarter pole.
And without Tony, without Dez in this one, and probably will continue to be without both until the bye. Two more games. Without three more current starters in this one, and without the three expected starters suspended before the season began.
Told you this past Friday this whole deal just felt different from last year.
Well, at 3-1, just a half-game off the NFC East lead behind the idle Eagles (3-0), now it also looks different.
Unflappable Dak. Precocious Zeke. The offensive line grinding away. Brice Butler and Terrance Williams stepping up for nine catches, 85 yards and two touchdowns in Dez' absence. And the defense, holding the 49ers (1-3) to just 17 points, lowering their per-game average to 19.25, and doing so with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli mixing and matching, trying to create some semblance of a pass rush.
Chemistry is building before your very eyes. Contributions are coming from everywhere. Claiborne. Maliek Collins. Tyrone Crawford. Ron Leary. Anthony Hitchens. Terrell McClain. Anthony Brown. Alfred Morris. Cole Beasley. Jason Witten.
They sense it.
"This team has great chemistry," said Prescott, who came within a whisker of have three touchdown passes, "guys who hang out off the field away from the facilities really coming together. We all have the same goal. We want to do whatever it takes to win, and it showed today."
"This was a great team win," said Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin.
"A lot of different guys in the lineup for us," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "You know, guys playing, backups playing, nobody blinked. Nobody blinked when we were down 14 on the road. It was a helluva team win for us."
The team, the team, the team.[embeddedad0]
Now, talent has something to do with this. But so does that youthful exuberance we spoke of on Friday. So does feeling a vested interest in the outcome. So does this camaraderie building, especially with veterans like Tony and Dez doing what they can to support the cause from the bench.
And maybe, just maybe, so does the head coach backing his players, as he did Dez when he went missing for two days after suffering his right lateral tibial plateau hairline fracture. Tried to deflect the media hollowing down his path, few even trying to understand why the Cowboys didn't exact a pound of flesh from Dez for missing his MRI and team meeting those two days.
Players see that. And if you have enough of the right kind of players, then they appreciate that more so than automatically being inclined to believe, well, I can take advantage, too.
Just think: Down 14. Not much going right. On the road. Backups galore manning crucial positions – quarterback, left tackle, nickel corner, rush end. Rookie running back. Rookie defensive tackle. Rookie corner. And win.
Just different, a team growing before your very eyes.
You can just see it.