Backup Houston quarterback Ryan Mallett was forced into the game unexpectedly when third-stringer Tom Savage went out with an apparent shoulder injury in the fourth quarter of the preseason finale.
Instead of handing off three times and heading home after a go-ahead 5-yard run touchdown by Dallas' Ben Malena, the Texans did try to throw twice with Mallett. After a pair of incompletions, Dallas ran out the clock in a 21-14 victory Thursday night.
"You know, we had a chance to make a play at the end," said Mallett, who lost the competition for the starting job to Brian Hoyer. "And we didn't make it."
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Corey White returned an interception 3 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, and the Cowboys scored again quickly after another turnover by Savage, who had two touchdown passes, to avoid their second straight winless exhibition season.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien didn't have an update on Savage, who was hurt on a tackle by Davon Coleman just after he threw a pass. The incompletion led to a punt, and the Cowboys drove to Malena's touchdown.
Savage's tying 16-yard touchdown pass to Keshawn Martin in the fourth quarter came after Dallas' Nick Harwell muffed a punt that was first flagged for interference before officials waved off the penalty. It was the second punt by Houston's Shane Lechler after the first hit the huge video board over the center of the field.
White was alone in the flat when he stepped in front of a pass intended for Jaelen Strong and scored easily for a 7-7 tie in the third quarter. Two plays later, Savage was hit by rookie Ryan Russell and the ball squirted forward. Officials ruled an incomplete pass that was overturned on review.
The original call wiped out Dallas linebacker Keith Smith's 21-yard return. Rookie running back Gus Johnson scored on the next play, spinning out of a tackle while barely avoiding the sideline near the pylon.
Some observations from the game:
Malena had 88 yards rushing, and Johnson added 68. But both are long shots to make the roster behind Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar. All three top backs trying to replace NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray sat out.
"We'll have some hard decisions to make," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We'll have some really good discussions."
Garrett said defensive end Greg Hardy missed the game to be with his girlfriend for the birth of their child. Garrett said the baby hadn't been born when he last talked to Hardy on Wednesday night. Hardy's four-game suspension for his role in a domestic violence case starts Saturday. Hardy wasn't expected to play against the Texans.
There were six holding penalties in the second quarter. Four were declined, including one for each team because the quarterback was sacked. The Cowboys got to choose between two calls that negated about a 30-yard punt return by Houston's Keith Mumphery, and a Dallas holding call wiped out most of a 23-yard return for Lucky Whitehead. The Cowboys finished with 11 penalties for 82 yards, and the Texans had seven for 46.
Mallett finished 18 of 29 for 135 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and Dallas third-stringer Dustin Vaughan was 11 of 20 for 115 yards. "There are a lot of guys who think they've shown enough, but the fact of the matter is that the brutal reality of the NFL is that it's out of our control now," said Vaughan, who was on the practice squad last season.