Prescott has pen­chant for de­liv­er­ing in fourth quar­ter

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NFL - Jori Ep­stein

FRISCO, Texas – Cole Beasley re­mem­bers his first thought on 4thand-15.

“Oh, crap,” the Cow­boys’ slot re­ceiver re­called Wed­nes­day to USA TO­DAY. “Where’d he go?”

With 1:19 to play Sun­day, Dak Prescott had told Beasley to ex­pect the Gi­ants to blitz. Dal­las trailed 35-28 fac­ing a long fourth down from New York’s 32.

Beasley ran the slant-and-go as Prescott had in­structed. But look­ing over his in­side shoul­der as he be­gan streak­ing to­ward the end zone, Beasley couldn’t find his quar­ter­back. Then Beasley saw it. Prescott spun out of pass-rusher Olivier Ver­non’s grasp, sprinted left and heaved a throw 32 yards to the back edge of the end zone. “An ab­so­lute dime,” Beasley said. Beasley laid out to grab the dart, fall­ing out of bounds just af­ter his knee landed in the end zone. A 2-point con­ver­sion later, the Cow­boys sealed the 36-35 win.

Even though Dal­las en­tered the day locked into the four seed for the play­offs, the score also sealed Prescott’s 14th ca­reer game-win­ning drive, the most by an NFL quar­ter­back in his first three sea­sons. He led the NFC East cham­pion Cow­boys on four drives this sea­son to push ahead af­ter ei­ther a tie or deficit in the fourth quar­ter or over­time.

Prescott de­clines to de­scribe the trend as hav­ing the “it” fac­tor.

“I think I just let prepa­ra­tion take over for the most part,” he said. “I don’t get too riled up that I’ve got to make this throw be­cause it’s this, be­cause it’s that. I just go out there and re­act.

“It’s ev­ery­body be­ing their best, when the best is ab­so­lutely needed.”

For the Cow­boys to chase the fran­chise’s first NFC Cham­pi­onship Game ap­pear­ance in 23 years, Prescott and his team will need that level of per­for­mance.

Come­backs, of course, are only nec­es­sary for teams that can’t mount and se­cure a lead early. That’s one of the prob­lems fac­ing a Dal­las team con­vert­ing on 48 per­cent of red-zone at­tempts this sea­son (29th in the league).

But the Cow­boys’ sixth-best scor­ing de­fense has kept Dal­las alive at times when the of­fense has stalled. In those in­stances, the team has looked to Prescott for late magic.

“He al­ways, even if we’re down 14, what­ever the score is, he’s al­ways say­ing it’s go­ing to hap­pen,” wide re­ceiver Amari Cooper said. “We’re go­ing to make it hap­pen. We’re go­ing to come back. Just that be­lief from our leader per­me­ates to ev­ery­one else.”

Prescott cred­its coach Ja­son Gar­rett’s re­lent­less two-minute drills.

“No­body wants to do them,” Beasley said. “But it seems that all of our games come down to that.”

Prescott dreamed of that grow­ing up, he says, count­ing down as he sunk buzzer-beat­ing shots in his drive­way that soon trans­lated to game win­ners at Haughton High School in his Louisiana home­town.

He en­gi­neered game-win­ning drives on the grid­iron as early as the eighth grade, con­tin­u­ing with a game-win­ning jail­break fade in his first high school start. He won his ju­nior year dis­trict ti­tle with an 11-play, 80-yard drive to pull ahead 41-38 with 7 sec­onds to play.

“There’s re­ally so many,” Kyle Wilk­er­son, Prescott’s high school of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, told USA TO­DAY of his for­mer pupil’s game-win­ning drives. “He thrives when the stress level and pres­sure is at its high­est. It’s like gaso­line for him. It fu­els him.”

The lore con­tin­ued at Mis­sis­sippi State in a Novem­ber 2013 matchup with Mis­sis­sippi in which Prescott didn’t even play be­fore the fourth quar­ter be­cause of a nerve in­jury in his non­throw­ing arm. But with the game on the line, and doc­tors as­sur­ing then-Bull­dogs coach Dan Mullen play­ing Prescott wouldn’t in­flict fur­ther dam­age, the starter stepped in. He com­pleted 11 of 20 passes for 115 yards, cap­ping the night with a game-win­ning 3-yard rush­ing touch­down on 4th-and-1 in over­time.

“I’m not go­ing to give some­one the ‘it’ fac­tor,” Prescott said. “I think to have the ‘it’ takes a lot more than that.”

How about af­ter a game win­ner against Arkansas two years later, his school-record sev­enth to­tal touch­down that game and fifth in the air?

By the time the Cow­boys drafted Prescott in 2016, of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Scott Line­han wasn’t sur­prised to see his quar­ter­back step up late in the NFL.

“The guy keeps play­ing and seems to get bet­ter as the game goes on,” Line­han said. “Never gets out of sync when he re­ally isn’t hav­ing a great quar­ter or has a bad play. He has the start­ing pitcher men­tal­ity: You’ve got to keep play­ing.”

Prescott dis­misses the no­tion that a flip switches late. The flip switches at kick­off, he in­sists.

But his 44 ca­reer TDs across the se­cond and fourth quar­ters com­pared to 21 in the first and third sug­gest oth­er­wise.

In Prescott’s lone play­off ap­pear­ance, he found him­self need­ing to score late again. The Cow­boys fell be­hind 28-13 in the third quar­ter of a Jan­uary 2017 di­vi­sional game against the Pack­ers. Prescott added to Dal­las’ woes with a thirdquar­ter in­ter­cep­tion on 2nd-and-1.

Then he en­gi­neered 15 points in the fourth quar­ter to tie the score. The Cow­boys tied again at 31 but ul­ti­mately fell 34-31.

Some­times, the fourth-quar­ter pro­duc­tion is in­suf­fi­cient. Prescott might face that prob­lem against Rus­sell Wil­son on Satur­day and potentially Drew Brees if the Cow­boys ad­vance. Since Prescott’s 2016 rookie sea­son, the three share the lead for most TDs (17) when the game is within seven points in the fourth quar­ter or over­time. Prescott is the only one of them without a Su­per Bowl ring. The Sea­hawks are the only team he’s played more than once and not beaten. He un­der­stands the stakes. “It’s ev­ery­thing,” he said. “I don’t pay at­ten­tion to any stat but wins and losses. When you say suc­cess of a quar­ter­back or a quar­ter­back’s suc­cess de­pend­ing on what they do in the play­offs, I think that’s where the checks are writ­ten and they make their money. Our job is to win no mat­ter what.”

DANIELLE PARHIZKARAN/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Cow­boys quar­ter­back Dak Prescott has thrown more touch­down passes (44) in the se­cond and fourth quar­ters dur­ing his NFL ca­reer than he has in the first and third quar­ters (21).

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