Again, not necessarily a surprise given the young players involved, but eliminating these types of errors is still essential for a team that led the league in penalties last season and totaled 14 in their playoff loss to San Francisco last January. A match which, coincidence or not, was also refereed by Alex Kemp.
Perhaps the brightest points in this one were the Cowboys on offense against offense and their run defense on the other side of the ball. Dallas averaged 5.0 yards per carry with Malik Davis leading with 51 yards on eight downs, averaging 6.4. Meanwhile, the Cowboys allowed just 1.8 yards per carry, with no Denver backs 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 he deserved to keep the job. After this one, however, the battle with Will Grier to see who will support Dak Prescott will be more intense than ever. Playing the third quarter, Rush completed 12 of 20 pass attempts for just 84 yards without a touchdown and one interception for a disappointing passer rating of 48.8.
With Grier out of the lineup due to injury, Ben DiNucci handled passing duties the rest of the way and completed 9 of 16 for 112 yards with a touchdown and 99.0 rating. Brandon Smith had just one catch but drove for 40 yards, which led the Cowboys in receiving yards.
First-round pick Tyler Smith got his first taste of NFL game action and looked impressive at times. As you’d expect in any rookie debut, he had his share of mistakes, including a few penalties, but his strength was on full display as he mauled his defender on several occasions.
Neither offense could do much early on as both teams made it three-and-one on their first two possessions. The Cowboys offense finally made some headway on their third down, thanks to an 18-yard completion from Dennis Houston that got Dallas through midfield.
And they made it to the home team’s 38, but fourth and second, instead of giving one of the two kickers fighting for a roster spot a chance, head coach Mike McCarthy decided to go there. Under heavy pressure in the middle, Rush’s pass to Jalen Tolbert was caught, the drive ending.
Shortly after, Denver found itself in a similar situation, facing a fourth-and-2 at the Cowboys 29-yard line. But Dante Fowler crossed 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 once again failing to convert a fourth-and-2, this time Tolbert unable to hold off a pass through the middle. Unfortunately, that gave Denver possession on the Dallas 47-yard line, and three snaps later Josh Johnson connected with Brandon Johnson on a 40-yard completion. The Broncos then capped off the practice with a high pass to Seth Williams, who went down with the ball for the game’s first score.
In Denver’s next series, the Dallas defense appeared to have slipped out of the field after a third pass attempt and 13 were incomplete. But Tarell Basham was called up for pass interference, breathing new life into the Broncos. They took advantage, adding seven more points after receiver Kendall Hinton jumped over Cowboys cornerback Nahshon Wright to complete the 24-yard touchdown pass.
Dallas regained a place just before halftime. The Broncos missed a 57-yard field goal as time expired, but Kelvin Joseph was called for an offside penalty, giving Denver another chance from five yards closer. And this time the attempt was good, the Broncos returning to the beak with a 17-0 advantage.
The penalty woes picked up where they left off. On their first possession of the second half, the Cowboys decided to go fourth-and-first on the Denver 41-yard line. However, a false start put them back five yards and then a 25-yard completion was called off due to a hold call. With that, Dallas kicked.
As the rain began to fall on their next series, the Broncos marched from their own 1-yard line to the Dallas 4. But there the Cowboys defense held firm, keeping Denver out of the end zone on four goal line tries.
DiNucci took over as the Cowboys’ next possession snapped in the final frame, and he brought a spark to the offense. He at least got the team back in midfield, and while McCarthy this time decided to try the basket, Lirim Hajrullahu’s 56-yard attempt sailed wide just after punter Bryan Anger struggled to handle a wet ball in the hold.
The Cowboys finally got on the board with just under five minutes left. From its own 5-yard line, the offense went the distance in 16 plays with rookie Davis rushing three times for 16 yards and recovering one pass for nine more. DiNucci finished with a 12-yard strike to Simi Fehoko for the touchdown, with Dallas at least managing to avoid the shutout.