Spagnola: What A Sight To Behold For The Ages

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FRISCO, Texas –Oh, my gosh.

This Cowboys team had adversity up to their ears Sunday night.

No Dak Prescott.

No Tyron Smith but for half the game.

Still no La'el Collins at tackle.

Amari Cooper on the sideline massaging out a tight hamstring on the most important drive of the game.

An unworldly number of penalties, nine of those suckers for 96 yards, a couple highly suspect.

Playing from behind three times, the final time by three points with 2:51 left to play.

Playing on the road on Halloween night at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where weird things have been known to happen anyway and that blasted horn in your ears.

And maybe most of all, going with a fourth-year quarterback who had never started an NFL game in his life and had not started a game of consequence since Dec. 19, 2016, while at Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl against Tulsa.

In fact, said QB had only thrown three passes in a regular-season NFL game since signing with the Cowboys as a rookie free agent 2017. Completed just one of them to boot.

Yet the Cowboys win, 20-16, over the Minnesota Vikings (3-4), showing the grit uncommon in these parts for quite some time.

"I just think the adversity, the back and forth, the up and down, I can't say enough about our football team the last two games, New England and tonight," an exhausted Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said.

But then McCarthy had more to say when asked what he learned about his football team that has now won six consecutive games, moving to 6-1 and a half-game from being tied for the best record in the NFC.

"What did I learn, I think this just confirmed our ability to fight through adversity," McCarthy said. "This bunch has a lot of character. They're tight. They enjoy one another. It's a fun group.

"They just don't blink."

No, these Cowboys don't, even when most everyone else was covering their eyes around 5:50 Sunday night when it was announced Cowboys starting quarterback Dak Prescott was not going to be active for this game, the Cowboys not wanting to chance further aggravating his strained calf muscle, meaning his backup Cooper Rush was going to make his NFL starting debut. Heck, even the Vegas oddsmakers blinked on Thursday afternoon when Dak said the decision to start Sunday night wouldn't be his since the Cowboys were considering the long-range big picture with 11 games still to play.

And I'm guessing you guys, too, were blinking at halftime when the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 1 scoring offense had produced just three points, trailing the Vikings, 10-3. Probably looking at Tuesday's trade deadline for a veteran backup quarterback. Probably questioning why Cowboys' 2018 fifth-round draft choice Mike White was starting for the Jets, throwing for 405 yards in a 34-31 upset win over Cincinnati in his first NFL start instead of still being at The Star.

Com on, admit it, you did rush to judgment.

Well, little did any of us know that one Cooper Rush was just setting up for one of the finest performances by a Cowboys backup quarterback in the franchise's now 62nd season. That's right, Cooper Rush.

Why, this was the rookie Clint Longley all over again on Thanksgiving 1974, taking over for a concussed Roger Staubach, and in his NFL debut leading the Cowboys to a 24-23 come-from-behind victory over Washington by throwing for 203 yards and two touchdowns.

This was backup Gary Hogeboom named the 1984 starter over incumbent Danny White and throwing for 343 yards in the opener for a 20-13 victory over the Rams in his first NFL start.

This was Steve Beuerlein entering in the third quarter of Game 12 in 1991 for the injured Troy Aikman, leading the Cowboys to a 24-21 victory over the previously undefeated Washingtons by throwing for 109 yards and the eventual winning touchdown pass to Michael Irvin in his first extended appearance with the Cowboys.

This was Jason Garrett on Thanksgiving Day 1994, the third string QB starting in place of the injured Aikman and backup Rodney Peete, gouging the Packers for 311 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-31 victory in his first extended appearance with the Cowboys.

And look, who knew in 2006 when taking over for veteran starter Drew Bledsoe in Game 6, Tony Romo in his first NFL start would complete 24 of 36 passes for 270 yards in a 35-14 victory over Carolina on the road.

But now this: Rush, who had made only cameo appearances in six other NFL games with the Cowboys since 2017, having spent the 2020 season on the team's practice squad, would be unflappable when a whole lot was flapping, completing not only 24 of 40 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns – the second-most yards to Hogeboom's when making a first career NFL start with the Cowboys – but also with 2:51 to play and the Cowboys trailing 16-13 not only leading the team on the game-winning touchdown drive with 51 seconds to spare but dropping a 5-yard touchdown pass into Amari Cooper's bucket for the winning score.

And by doing so, with his wife Lauryn and his parents among the 66,633 folks in the stands, vaulting himself into Cowboys lore forever more. In 20 years they'll be asking what were you wearing Halloween night 2021 when this guy named Rush …

"I'll tell you what, I was glad everybody got to see that because that's Cooper Rush," McCarthy said of the quarterback's final touchdown drive, starting at his own 25-yard line before completing six of seven passes for 75 yards. "I think that's the 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." He also needs a little help from his friends, like Cooper catching those eight passes for 122 yards, CeeDee Lamb six for 112, Cedric Wilson three for 83, including the 73-yard touchdown that saw him speed past three Vikings defenders, and Ezekiel Elliott. That's right, Zeke. With the Cowboys facing third-and-11 at the Minnesota 20-yard line with 1:04 to play, he turned what appeared was going to be a sure game-tying field-goal attempt into a 15-yard reception, twice splitting two Vikings defenders and nearly willing himself into the end zone, finally being ridden down at the 5.

Then, too, that Cowboys' stellar defensive performance, allowing Rush to outduel Minnesota quarterback Kurt Cousins, who was held to 184 yards passing, and the Vikings offense to just 278 total yards. And on top of all that, with Minnesota first-and-goal at the Cowboys' 4-yard line with the game tied at 13 with 5:08 to play, throwing the Vikings backwards for 7 yards on the next two plays to ultimately force a field goal from the 5.

Plus, you know what? The 16 points matched the second fewest the Cowboys have given up in the past 28 games, and doing so without the aid of a takeaway, ending their streak of 13 consecutive games with at least one. Plus-plus, this win and the 20-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in Game 2 of this year are the fewest points the Cowboys have scored to win a game in the past 41, going back to that surprising 13-10 victory over New Orleans in Game 12 of the 2018 season, ending the Saints' 10-game winning streak.

Oh, and everyone OK with rook Micah Parsons playing primarily linebacker? He finished with 11 tackles, four of those tackles for losses, while playing 97 percent of the snaps. Defensive end Randy Gregory came up with another sack, three QB hits and a couple of forced holding penalties on the Vikings, along with a couple more that should have been called. And Anthony Brown with five more tackles and two pass breakups.

About the only thing that didn't happen was Trevon Diggs getting a pick, his streak of six consecutive games with an interception coming to a halt, but much worse getting beat repeatedly and being called for two penalties in coverage.

Other than that, what a Halloween night.

"I knew some time it was coming," the newest _Coooop_ said of his first NFL start. "I've kind of waited a long time. Last year at this time I was on my couch. I think it was – I've counted the games where I've dressed and prepared and didn't get in. It's up around 50, I think.

"So, you just knew it was coming, be patient. I think all that preparation really helped, came through tonight."

Yep, oh, what a night it was.

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