Again, that’s not necessarily a surprise given the young players involved, but eliminating those types of mistakes is still key for a team that led the league in penalties last season and tallied 14 in its playoff loss to San Francisco last January. A game that, coincidence or not, was also refereed by Alex Kemp.
Perhaps the brightest spots in this one were the Cowboys running attack on offense and their run defense on the other side of the ball. Dallas averaged 5.0 yards per carry with Malik Davis leading the way with 51 yards on eight attempts, a 6.4 average. Meanwhile, the Cowboys allowed just 1.8 yards per carry, with no Denver back gaining more than 20 yards in the contest.
Behind center, last year’s second-string quarterback, Cooper Rush, got the start and hoped to show the coaching staff that he deserved to keep the job. After this one, however, the battle with Will Grier to see who will back up Dak Prescott will be more intense than ever. Playing the in the third quarter, Rush completed 12 of his 20 pass attempts for just 84 yards with no touchdowns and one interception for a disappointing 48.8 passer rating.
With Grier out of the lineup due to injury, Ben DiNucci handled the passing duties the rest of the way and completed 9 of 16 for 112 yards with one touchdown and a 99.0 rating. Brandon Smith only had one catch, but it went for 40 yards, which led the Cowboys in receiving yards.
First-round draft pick Tyler Smith got his first taste of NFL game action and looked impressive at times. As can be expected in any debutant debut, he had his share of mistakes, including a couple of penalties, but his strength was on full display when he injured his defender on several occasions.
Neither offense could do much of anything in the early going, as both teams went three-and-out on their first two possessions. The Cowboys offense finally made some progress on their third down, thanks to an 18-yard completion to Dennis Houston that got Dallas across midfield.
And they got to the home side’s 38, but on fourth-and-2, instead of giving a chance to one of the two kickers fighting for a roster spot, head coach Mike McCarthy decided to go for it. Under heavy pressure up the middle, Rush’s pass to Jalen Tolbert was picked off, ending the drive.
Not long after, Denver found itself in a similar situation, facing a fourth-and-2 at the Cowboys’ 29-yard line. But Dante Fowler burst through the line from his right defensive end position and pressured quarterback Josh Johnson, who threw the ball incomplete.
The second frame began with the Cowboys again failing to convert a fourth-and-2, this time Tolbert unable to hold a pass over the middle. Unfortunately, that gave Denver possession at the Dallas 47-yard line, and three snaps later, Josh Johnson connected with Brandon Johnson on a 40-yard completion. The Broncos then capped the drive with an underpass to Seth Williams, who came down with the ball for the game’s first score.
On Denver’s next series, the Dallas defense appeared to have gotten itself off the field after a third-and-13 pass attempt fell incomplete. But Tarell Basham was called for pass interference, giving the Broncos new life. They took advantage, adding another seven points after a wideout Kendall Hinton jumped over Cowboys cornerback Nahshon Wright to haul in the 24-yard touchdown pass.
Dallas got in again just before the half. The Broncos missed a 57-yard field goal as time expired, but Kelvin Joseph was called for an offsides penalty, giving Denver another chance five yards closer. And this time the try was a good one, the Broncos entered the tip with a 17-0 advantage.
The penalty problems picked up right where they left off. On their first possession of the second half, the Cowboys decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Denver 41-yard line. However, a false start pushed them back five yards and then a 25-yard completion was negated by a holding call. With that, Dallas punted.
As rain began to fall on their next series, the Broncos marched from their own 1-yard line all the way down to the Dallas 4. But there the Cowboys defense held its ground, keeping Denver out of the end zone on four attempts at the. goal line
DiNucci took over as the Cowboys’ next possession ticked over into the final frame, and he brought a spark to the offense. He at least got the team back across midfield, and while McCarthy decided to try the field goal this time, Lirim Hajrullahu’s 56-yard attempt sailed wide just after punter Bryan Anger struggled to get a wet ball on the hold.
The Cowboys then finally got on the board with just under five minutes remaining. Starting at their own 5-yard line, the offense went the distance in 16 plays with rookie Davis rushing three times for 16 yards and hauling in a pass for nine more. DiNucci finished it off with a 12-yard strike to Simi Fehoko for the touchdown, Dallas at least managing to avoid the shutout.