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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Carter Bell felt he crossed the goal line.

“The ball just has to (reach) the white,” the Bettendorf quarterback said. “I thought I got in, but it is up to the ref to decide that.”

The official spotted the ball short.

After a 3-plus hour back-and-forth semifinal tussle between the two most storied football programs in Iowa Class 4A, West Des Moines Dowling escaped in quadruple-overtime Friday evening at the UNI-Dome, 41-34.

“It was stunning, it was heartbreaking, and something you can’t really even process in the moment,” Bettendorf senior Darien Porter said. “Just a terrible feeling.”

Bell stared at the videoboard for almost a minute wanting to see a replay of his fourth and goal run from inside the 1 in the fourth overtime. Dowling’s players and coaches, meanwhile, were celebrating as its quest for a sixth consecutive state championship remained alive.

“It will be the first thing I’ll probably be thinking about in 40 years when we’re talking about this game,” said Bettendorf receiver Brandan Tillman, who had five grabs for 97 yards. “We came an inch from possibly winning.”

The Bulldogs (10-2) lost in the semifinals for the fifth time in six years. This was the most agonizing.

Bettendorf outplayed Dowling (10-2) for a large portion of the game. It had a 17-point halftime cushion, out-gained the Maroons in total yards and limited all-state tailback Jayson Murray to 104 yards on 27 carries.

“It is unfortunate somebody had to lose the ballgame,” Dowling coach Tom Wilson said. “Being on the winning end of it, it is easy for me to say that, but honest to God, I thought Bettendorf played its hearts out. I’ve got a ton of respect for those kids.”

The four overtimes matched the longest game in Iowa postseason history between two programs with a combined 15 state championships and 148 playoff victories.

“It was a great game for our program,” Bell said. “It shows we’re not the fourth or fifth best in the state. We can hang with the top guys in the state. We came up a little short.”

Bettendorf capitalized on opportunities in the first half. Bell had a touchdown run, Keegan Schmidt booted through a 43-yard field goal and Bell found Tillman for a 20-yard scoring strike in the final minute of the half.

The Bulldogs seemed in control up 17.

But on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, Murray darted 93 yards to the Bulldogs’ 6. He scored on the next play.

“That was the real kick in the gut,” Bettendorf coach Aaron Wiley said.

Schmidt’s kickoff, in fact, was about a half-yard from going into the end zone for a touchback.

“I saw daylight and went for it,” Murray said. “Mostly, it was just the guys telling me I had to do it. We had a lot of guys hanging their head at halftime and thinking we were going to lose.”

Arguably, the biggest game-changer came late in the third quarter.

Dowling faced second and long from its own 24. Quarterback Zach Watters was hit by a pair of Bettendorf defenders and lost the ball. The Bulldogs recovered, but the officials said Watters was down.

Instead of Bettendorf having a first down inside the Dowling 25, Bettendorf was pinned deep in its own territory after a Maroon punt. Bell was picked off by Jack Keough, who returned it to the Bulldogs’ 5.

Three plays later, Watters plunged in to make a one-score game.

“Against a team like that, you can’t have things go wrong like that,” Wiley said. “You can’t give them two short fields.”

Bettendorf also had chances to tack on in the third quarter. Schmidt missed 48- and 29-yard field goal attempts that would have extended the margin.

“I felt I got a good leg on them both, but sometimes one little thing on your form can mess everything up,” Schmidt said.

After Bell’s interception, Bettendorf threw the ball only one more time in the final 9-plus minutes of regulation.

“We weren’t trying to keep the pressure on them and keep them on their heels, especially when we threw the ball well in the first half,” Tillman said. “We became very run-oriented.”

Dowling’s Drew Peterson kicked a season-long 32-yard field goal with 1:57 left in regulation to tie it.

The teams exchanged a field goal and two touchdowns through the first three overtimes.

In the third overtime, Austin Kalar found Bell on a halfback pass for a 10-yard touchdown to snatch a 34-27 lead.

“We’ve been working on that,” Bell said. “We installed it two weeks before the playoffs. It came out at a good time, and it worked.”

Dowling responded. Tight end Andrew Lentsch caught his first pass of the season on a bootleg to square the game.

Then in the fourth overtime, Jack Lyman caught a slant for a 9-yard score.

“They beat our guy inside,” Wiley said.

After three Bell runs, coupled with a defensive pass interference call, Bettendorf had fourth and 1.

Bell’s number was called again. He dove for the goal line.

With a heap of players around him, Bell was ruled short. 

“A half-yard here, a half-yard there,” Wiley said. “There were so many plays in this game. Usually, there are one or two football plays you look at in a game, but my gosh, there were a lot here. Maybe a dozen.

“We had chances. At the end, we fell about an inch short, if that. That's a tough pill to swallow."

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Sports Editor

Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.