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Cooper Rush new Cowboys starting quarterback in place of Dak Prescott

FRISCO, Texas — The game-winning touchdown drew the most attention, a 5-yard backflip to Amari Cooper securing a prime-time road victory in Minnesota.

But when the Dallas Cowboys teammates consider Cooper Rush’s most impressive decision last Halloween in his only career start, another play comes up: the slam just before.

Dallas trailed 16-13 and faced Minnesota third-and-11-20, 1:04 remaining. Two receivers traveled along the left sideline toward the end zone, with tight end Dalton Schultz making his way down the right. But Rush’s pocket began to crumble, the Vikings outpaced the rushers eager to seal a victory. So Rush checked the ball underhand for running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott split the defenders and overshot the first down mark. A game later, Rush engineered the score to win.

“You take a young man, put him in this situation, third and 11, game on the line, they’re going to try to force something on the court that could turn into a bad situation,” Elliott told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. . “But he is so poised and he trusts his progression and controls the ball.

“He’s not going to panic.”

The Cowboys have plenty to panic about entering a Week 2 game with the defending AFC champions Bengals. Not only was Dallas the only NFL team unable to score a touchdown last week, but also quarterback Dak Prescott fractured the thumb of his throwing arm in the season opener. Prescott underwent surgery on Monday after being unable to grab the ball. Jerry Jones said Prescott would not go to injured reserve, but would still likely be sidelined four to six games.

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In his sted comes Rush and his first NFL multi-game starting opportunity during a six-year career almost exclusively in Dallas. Rush understands the challenge ahead. His team insists he will rise to the occasion.

“When it comes to Cooper Rush, we don’t think there are really any limits to what we want to do,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He is as experienced in this offense as anyone. … Cooper’s strength is his confidence in his details. When he gets up, so much about caucus command.

“There’s definitely a ship-stabilizing personality to him.”

‘Coop knows his [expletive]’

The football gods must have laughed when the Cowboys signed Rush to an undrafted free agent contract in 2017. Rush had started four seasons at Central Michigan, completing 62% of passes for 12,891 yards, 90 touchdowns and 55 interceptions. NFL evaluators praised his football IQ and mastery of his playbook while acknowledging the limits of his arm strength and athleticism. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein opted for a league comparison: Kellen Moore.

Then Rush entered a quarterback room where he joined Prescott and Moore on the depth board in 2017. Now, Moore is entering his third year as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator.

“We certainly know each other well, he knows the system well,” Moore said Monday. “He knows who he is as a player.”

Teammates and coaches expect Rush to compete accordingly, they say. Rush was set to face Minnesota last season as Prescott recovered from a calf injury. Rush diagnosed defensive looks to match a 24-of-40 passing day with 325 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Rush had a 92.3 passer rating and the win in his lone start, and the Cowboys converted 50% (7 of 14) of third downs. (In comparison, with Prescott at the helm last week, Dallas extended drives on just 5 of 14 third downs.)

“All you do every day is want to earn respect (from your teammates) and go out there on Sunday (and) play well,” Rush said. “It was a great moment to be able to go out in live action.

“They respect me.”

That respect was also earned in the Star’s off-season pitching sessions and boardrooms. His teammates told USA TODAY Sports how Rush’s knowledge of the game elevates the whole group, with receivers appreciating how he guides them to more accurate routes and quicker exits from their breaks. Summer pitching sessions on an outdoor field in Frisco helped several young players get to grips with the playbook, they said.

“He’s like a walking computer on what you need to know,” Simi Fehoko, Dallas’ current third receiver, told USA TODAY Sports. “He sees the big picture.”

As Prescott’s backup – Rush has played just 11 games since 2017 – his game plan responsibilities have been crucial, they say. For the past few seasons, Rush has presented a blitz tape to the quarterback room featuring all the pressures the Opponent of the Week has shown on film. He would guide the room through potential protection risks and the best responses, noting how receivers should alter their routes and what calls to anticipate. How might a lightning response change if you’re facing a third-and-short versus a third-and-long? What should Prescott do if a big blitz left a threat unexplained? Rush was quick to explain the nuances and responses to disguise in practice as well, said 2020 Cowboys seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci.

“A lot of it is, ‘How the hell did you see that coming? “He would say, ‘Well, linebackers push one way, that’s the key. Look up front, three techniques, just little hints the defense gives.

“Telling signs for QBs on where we’re supposed to go with the ball.”

DiNucci acknowledged Rush’s introverted nature, viewing him as “kind of your silent assassin”.

His teammates know this cerebral nature, no matter how vocal he is.

“He’s on top of that offense,” Elliott said. “Personally, I know that Cooper knows his [expletive].”

‘Here we go again’

Cowboys fans might naturally ask: is a strong quarterback game enough to keep the season alive until Prescott returns? Would that even be enough to keep the offense afloat against a talented Bengals unit this week?

Dallas’ defense looked solid against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers last week, nullifying two of three red-zone opportunities, intercepting a pass and allowing just one touchdown. Dallas’ offense, meanwhile, scored the fewest points (3) in a 32-team league and rushed for fewer yards (244) than all but two clubs.

“We have to find our rhythm,” Moore said.

Rush will lead this charge. He’ll navigate issues of protecting inexperienced offensive linemen on the left side and a heavily penalized right tackle, and would be wise to lean on Elliott again after his opening performance of 5.3 yards per carry. Generating enough passing game for defenses to clear the box will help. Although Rush can no longer target Cooper (Dallas traded him to Cleveland in March), he will work with young receivers he has developed relationships with in practice and CeeDee Lamb, whom Dallas hopes can become his No. 1.

Lamb caught just 2 of 11 targets for 29 yards in Game 1, his ninth consecutive contest (including the playoffs) without 100 yards or a touchdown. And yet, if Lamb looks back on his last 100-yard day, he’ll see: It was Rush who started at QB when Lamb caught six of eight passes for 112 yards against Minnesota (receiver Cedrick Wilson completed a play-in for 35 meters).

“Just throwing it in there again is like, I mean, ‘here we go again,'” Lamb said. “I say this with the most positivity.

“I can’t wait for my man to come out and show up.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein