ARLINGTON, Texas — Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys ran over the NFL’s No. 1 defense, answering a little history from the legs of Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold.
Elliott carried 20 times for 143 yards in the two-time rushing champion’s first triple-digit game of the season, Dak Prescott threw four touchdown passes and the Cowboys beat the Panthers 36-28 on Sunday.
Elliott scored the first touchdown as the Cowboys (3-1) rolled up 245 yards on the ground after the Panthers allowed just 135 total in the first three games while also leading the league in passing yards and total yards. Tony Pollard added 67 yards.
“They’re a good defense,” Elliott said after finishing with his most yards since 2018. “They bring a lot of different fronts. They run a lot of different things so they’re going to change it up on you. They haven’t seen an offense like us this year.”
Leading the Panthers in their first full game without injured star running back Christian McCaffrey, Darnold had two rushing touchdowns to become the first NFL quarterback with at least five TDs on the ground in the first four games.
“I think this was just a matter of what defenses want to do to us,” said Darnold, who carried six times for 35 yards. “If they want to show us certain looks, we’re going to take advantage of it.”
It was a different story for Darnold behind the line of scrimmage before getting hot in the passing game with the Panthers (3-1) trying to erase a 22-point deficit in the fourth quarter in their first loss.
Trevon Diggs had two interceptions for an NFL-leading five while becoming the first Dallas player with a pick in each of the first four games since the 1970 merger.
When he won a tug of war with receiver DJ Moore for the second pick, Diggs gave Dallas, this year’s NFL leader in forcing turnovers, multiple takeaways in an eighth consecutive game going back to last season, the longest active streak in the league.
“Player of the month, working on his second month of the season,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s playing with phenomenal confidence. Obviously a big responsibility watching their top receiver. Delivered with two huge plays there in the second half.”
The Cowboys sacked Darnold five times, including two from Randy Gregory, while Dallas kept Prescott upright against a defense that entered the game with an NFL-best 14 sacks.
Carolina’s pressure did force Prescott into more incompletions than he’s been used to while completing 77.5% of his passes the first three weeks, but he had enough time for scoring passes to four different receivers.
Three of the TDs came in the third quarter to erase a 14-13 halftime deficit as Prescott finished 14 of 22 for 188 yards. His scoring tosses were 18 yards to Blake Jarwin, 35 to Amari Cooper, 6 to Dalton Schultz and 23 to Cedrick Wilson, the last set up by Diggs’ first pick.
“Just being able to mix it around, get it in different guys’ hands,” Prescott said. “All these guys are great. The next guy’s going to try to make a touchdown if they don’t get theirs with their opportunity.”
Elliott set up Schultz’s short scoring catch with a 47-yard run, his longest since a 55-yarder as a rookie in 2016.
Pollard has three consecutive games of at least 60 yards for the first time in his three seasons, and the Cowboys are averaging 201 yards on the ground in three games since finishing with just 60 in the opener, a 31-29 loss to Tampa Bay.
“Our rush defense has been our sort of calling card,” Carolina coach Matt Rhule said. “We were not able to stop the run today, were not able to get to the quarterback, were not able to take the ball away and our offense turned the ball over.”
Darnold, who had five rushing TDs in 38 career games with the New York Jets, matched Elliott’s 1-yard plunge in the first quarter with a 1-yard option keeper. The Panthers went ahead 14-13 on an 11-yard QB draw.
With two long scoring drives capped by short TD tosses to Moore in the fourth quarter, Darnold finished 26 of 39 passing for 301 yards. Moore caught eight passes for 113 yards.
Dallas’ Cooper missed some early series because of a right hamstring injury, but returned to lead Dallas with 69 yards receiving. His TD came when he beat new Carolina cornerback CJ Henderson down the sideline and made the catch while keeping his feet inbounds at the pylon.
Henderson made his Carolina debut after a trade with Jacksonville early in the week, even though he missed his final game with the Jaguars because of a groin injury.
Chuba Hubbard had 13 carries for 57 yards in his first career start with McCaffrey out because of a hamstring injury. But the running game was an afterthought after Diggs’ second pick led to Greg Zuerlein’s 37-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 36-14 lead.
Carolina returns home to face another NFC East team, Philadelphia, next Sunday.