Mac Engel

In Cowboys’ frighteningly ugly game, Zeke was ruggedly beautiful

Ezekiel Elliott dives into the Vikings’ end zone from a yard out for a touchdown in the second quarter. Elliott had 86 yards on 20 carries.
Ezekiel Elliott dives into the Vikings’ end zone from a yard out for a touchdown in the second quarter. Elliott had 86 yards on 20 carries. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Ezekiel Elliott’s biggest carry of the night did not go for a touchdown or a first down but for a single yard.

Nursing an eight-point lead late in the fourth quarter, a snap squirted through quarterback Dak Prescott’s hands at his own 31-yard line. It was gift-wrapped for the Vikings to recover, set up a short field and tie it up.

Instead, there was Zeke recovering the fumble to avert disaster, and on the stat sheet his “carry” went for one yard.

Now the Vikings nearly tied it anyway but, thanks to a blown call on Minnesota’s 2-point try, as the officials missed a hands-to-the-face hit on quarterback Sam Bradford, the Cowboys left with their 11th consecutive win.

The Dallas Cowboys’ 17-15 win over the Minnesota Vikings was an ugly game in a beautiful new stadium. Win No. 11 was easily the Cowboys’ least pretty of the season, but it showed the level to which the Cowboys hit on Zeke.

He may flash the crop-top shirt and sport some pretty fashions, but this is a tough, dirty running back who is not afraid.

Thursday will not go down as one of the better verses from The Book of Ezekiel but if you look beyond some of the numbers, there was an edge, a nastiness and toughness that continues the distinguished legacy of this franchise’s best running backs.

The Cowboys, and the NFL, are celebrating their lucky find of Dak to replace Tony Romo, but don’t forget that when this franchise has won big, it had special running backs.

Men like Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, himself a first-round draft pick. The other, of course, is former first-round pick Emmitt Smith.

When the Cowboys were dominant, they had dominant backs.

Zeke has a many more yards to gain and touchdowns to score before he could ever dream of being mentioned in the same sentence as those two football icons, but what he has shown as a rookie is that it’s there; at a minimum he is as good, if not better, than DeMarco Murray was for the Cowboys in 2014 when he was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Zeke is not perfect, but we are looking at the NFL’s best running back – the guy can do everything, do it well, and grind when necessary. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett doesn’t have to take out his rookie running back in any passing situation because the young man can be trusted to pick up a blitz.

On Thursday night, Zeke ran it 20 times for 86 yards with a touchdown. Zeke also caught four passes for 15 yards.

Considering the season he is having, those are pretty ordinary numbers and nothing to be celebrated for a man who has made playing against some NFL teams look as easy as running over Purdue or Northwestern.

He has just one 100-yard rushing effort in the last six games to pretty much kill any hope that he would break any big record, or eclipse the sacred 2,000-yard mark.

But, big deal?

Coach Process has his team believing numbers don’t matter, and against the Vikings every number other than the final score was ugly. It had the feel of a “Good pitching, stops good hitting” game.

The Cowboys were 1-of-9 on third downs, and generated a blah 264 yards of total offense.

There simply was not a lot of air to enjoy for the Cowboys, even behind that offensive line. The Vikings don’t give running backs much.

Most of Zeke’s runs were 1-, 2- or 3-yarders. The man was justifiably frustrated.

His longest run was for 43 yards, but that first-quarter play was wiped out because of a holding call on right tackle Doug Free, a call that was questionable at best.

But in the second quarter, Zeke was able to score a touchdown on a 1-yard run in a game where 12 inches could not be taken for granted.

We kept waiting for a home run, and it seemed like it would never happen, but with 6:37 remaining in the game, Zeke finally broke through for the one play the Cowboys needed – he ran for 30 yards down to the Vikings’ 23-yard line.

The blocking was there, but so too was Zeke, who made a few moves of his own to create the biggest running play of the night.

The run was the play to set up what would be the decisive margin – Dan Bailey’s 39-yard field goal.

Nothing about Thursday night’s game was particularly pretty; it was loud, slow, prodding and brutal. These are the kind of games where rookies can be punched in the mouth, and easily check out.

Zeke is a kid, but he’s the best running back in the NFL.

And when the Cowboys have won big, they have had the best running backs.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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