Preseason finales are for coaches to determine the lower depths of the roster, and Friday’s performance had some players improving their chances while others may have negatively affected the outcome of the game.
The defensive backups generally played well, forcing four fumbles and recovering three, thereby setting up the offense on short fields. But problems with the second-half passing game and a strange special-teams error left the Vikings with a 35-31 loss at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys after they had built a 21-7 halftime lead.
Tarvaris Jackson started the game for the Vikings but didn’t get much of an opportunity to throw the ball, completing 2 of 4 passes. However, one of them was a 36-yard touchdown. Sage Rosenfels replaced Jackson in the second quarter and completed 7 of 15 passes for 115 yards, but he threw a bad interception in the third quarter that was returned for a touchdown. John David Booty followed suit, completing 7 of 13 passes for 85, but he, too, threw an interception on his first series.
Darius Reynaud improved his roster chances with an 81-yard punt return, and Ian Johnson made a case for at least the practice squad with a 61-yard rushing performance in which he averaged 3.6 yards per carry.
The Vikings didn’t start fast, but they turned it around after the first series by taking advantage of first-half turnovers.
The Cowboys’ Jon Kitna had little trouble negotiating the Vikings’ second-team defense on his first drive. He converted a third down with a 9-yard pass to WR Kevin Ogletree and then rendered a sack by Jayme Mitchell meaningless when Martellus Bennett caught a 31-yard pass. Two plays later, Bennett caught a 12-yarder from Kitna before RB Tashard Choice took the Cowboys to the 5-yard line with three straight touches. Facing third-and-4 from the 5-yard line, Kitna found Olgetree in the back for the end zone for a 7-0 Cowboys lead with 7:06 to play in the first quarter.
Jackson started the game and couldn’t move the offense on his first series, but he quickly got another chance when Kitna muffed a snap and Letroy Guion recovered. After an incompletion, Jackson scrambled and found Jeff Dugan wide open for a 36-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7.
Early in the second quarter, the Vikings took advantage of another Cowboys turnover – this time it was a forced one. With Kitna leading Dallas past midfield with two passes of more than 10 yards, DT Tremaine Johnson hit Kitna from behind and forced the ball into the air. Letroy Guion intercepted it and ran it back 24 yards before fumbling it while switching arms. Kenny Onatolu recovered and the Vikings offense was back in business.
From the 25-yard line, Ian Johnson did most of the work. Besides a 5-yard scramble by Tarvaris Jackson, Johnson accounted for the all the yards on the short field, including a 1-yard touchdown run to give the Vikings their first lead of the game, 14-7, with 10:40 remaining in the first half.
It wouldn’t take them long to stretch the lead. After the defense forced a three-and-out with Dallas playing third-string QB Rudy Carpenter, Darius Reynaud took the ensuing punt, split to defenders, leaped over another and juked punter Mat McBriar for an 81-yard touchdown return and a 21-7 lead with 9:12 to play in the second quarter.
The Dallas self-destruction continued on their ensuing drive when Keon Lattimore fumbled without provocation and Onatolu recovered another one.
With Sage Rosenfels in the game, the Vikings moved it across midfield with a 28-yard pass to Jaymar Johnson and continued to methodically move it close to the goal line. Facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Childress opted to go for the touchdown, but Rosenfels went down for a 4-yard loss when Patrick Watkins sniffed out the bootleg.
The Vikings had one more shot at the end of the half, but a 51-yard Ryan Longwell field goal attempt was blocked to essentially end the half.
While the Vikings were the beneficiary of Dallas turnovers in the first half, the Vikings were in the giving mood at the beginning of the second half.
Rosenfels’ first pass of the third quarter was intercepted by Watkins, who came off his slot receiver to undercut a Nick Moore route, catching the ball in stride and waltzing 23 yards into the end zone.
Booty was inserted and didn’t fare any better. After four running plays, Booty’s first pass was intercepted by LB Steve Octavien and returned 44 yards for an interception to quickly tie the game, 21-21, early in the third quarter.
Once again, turnovers led to another touchdown – but this time the advantage went to the Vikings. Asher Allen forced a fumble of Julius Crosslin and Marcus Walker recovered, setting up Rosenfels and the Vikings offense on the Cowboys 30-yard line. They kept it on the ground, with Ian Johnson dominating the workload. He rushed three straight times for a combined 16 yards before the Vikings benefitted from a pass interference call, putting them on the 3-yard line. Once play later, Johnson fired into the end zone from 2 yards out to regain the lead for the Vikings, 28-21.
Despite two defensive penalties that gave the Cowboys two first downs on their ensuing drive, Dallas was eventually forced to punt and Rosenfels led another scoring drive. This time, the Vikings would have to do it the hard way, starting at their 20-yard line. WR Bobby Williams made that task much easier with a 47-yard reception on a perfectly thrown bomb from Rosenfels. That was enough to get Longwell in field goal position, and he connected on a 41-yarder to give Minnesota a 31-21 lead.
The Cowboys responded with a rarity – answering a score with a score without the assist of a turnover to spur the drive. Crosslin carried the load to start, picking up a first down with a 13-yard run, which QB Rudy Carpenter followed with another 13-yard scramble three plays later to convert third-and-12. Carpenter converted another third down with a 19-yard pass to John Phillips. Two plays later, he found another tight end, Scott Chandler, for 10 yards, but Phillips ended up with the 5-yard touchdown to draw the Cowboys within three points, 31-28.
With Booty back in the game, he moved the Vikings past midfield with completions of 17 yards to Vinny Perretta and 18 yards to Nick Moore. That was all the Vikings could muster offensively, but their special teams broke down when it counted it most. Chris Kluwe punted and back up the ball inside the 10-yard line, but it hopped right into the hands of Jesse Holley, who grabbed it and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown and a 35-31 Cowboys lead that held up for the remaining 2:51.
While the outcome of the game didn’t matter to the starters that were one the sidelines, it gave a glimpse into the reliability of the backups and the future depth of the team. There were some players making strong impressions, especially on defense, and others, like Rosenfels and Booty, who had disappointing interceptions that could figure into the future of that position, which is the essence of what preseason finales have become.