When Justice O'Conner is negated, Cyle Cox doesn't panic.
When the Class 4A No. 1-ranked Bettendorf Bulldogs found themselves with just a slim, seven-point lead at halftime over a three-win team, they didn't panic.
That's the sign of a top-ranked football team.
The Bulldogs put their faith in their senior quarterback, and Cox responded with 247 yards and a touchdown pass as the Bulldogs beat Cedar Rapids Kennedy 31-7 in a second-round playoff game Monday night at TouVelle Stadium.
"We started off slow and we can't do that against the good teams deep in the run," Cox said. "Them keying on Justice opened up runs for me and that's what we've got to do. If they key on one person, one person has to step up and take it over and that's what we did tonight."
O'Conner, who came into the game averaging 7.9 yards per carry, finished with respectable numbers — 77 yards on 20 carries with three touchdowns — but was bottled up most of the night as he only had 28 yards after three quarters. The Cougar focus on O'Conner opened up big holes for Cox, who ran the read option perfectly for 116 yards on 17 carries.
"He's a great player," Bulldog head coach Aaron Wiley said. "He's our leader, he's a tough kid and he's a gamer, he's a winner. If we're going to put the ball in someone's hands, he's going to have it."
It was another slow start for the Bulldogs (11-0), who were fortunate to not turn the ball over, despite fumbling it four times in the first half. On their second drive of the game, Cox hit Austin Cullor for a 35-yard touchdown pass with 3 minutes, 16 seconds left in the first quarter.
Kennedy (3-8) responded early in the second quarter by putting together a 12-play, 64-yard drive that ended with Cougar quarterback Sammy Lizarraga hitting Shaun Beyer for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 8:52.
After forcing a three-and-out on the next Bulldog drive, the Cougars looked poised to take a lead with good field position at the Bettendorf 47.
Lizarraga's first pass of the drive was intercepted by Keegan Glaus, and while the Bulldogs didn't come away with any points after a botched snap on a field goal attempt, Cassin Wolfe intercepted Lizarraga's next pass and O'Conner scored his first touchdown with 1:55 remaining in the half to give Bettendorf a 14-7 lead.
"We just had to go back out and play," Glaus said. "Our offense didn't get that touchdown but we went out and got another interception. We got the momentum for our offense and we started scoring."
Bettendorf pulled away in the second half, in large part because of its defense, which surrendered just 46 yards in the second half, 182 in the game. O'Conner broke off scoring runs of 25 and 6 yards and Matt Perk kicked a 41-yard field goal to complete the scoring for the Bulldogs.
"It was good, they got it going in the second half but I try to get it in their heads that as a team, if we keep starting slow, we're going to end up almost winning," O'Conner said. "We can't afford to almost win, we've got to start on fire."
The win wasn't pretty, but for the Bulldogs, who advance to the quarterfinals for the second straight year, the final score is all that matters.
"You don't get any style points with this stuff. You find a way to win," Wiley said. "I thought our defense was outstanding and that's how you win games in the playoffs."
Bettendorf 31, Cedar Rapids Kennedy 7
Bett -- Austin Cullor 35 pass from Cyle Cox (Matt Perk kick), 3:16
CR -- Shaun Beyer 6 pass from Sammy Lizarraga (Rizaiha Maide kick), 8:52
Bett -- O'Conner 6 run (Perk kick), 1:55
Bett -- Perk 41 FG, 4:15
Bett -- O'Conner 25 run (Perk kick), 8:55
Bett -- O'Conner 6 run (Perk kick), 3:51
Rushing -- CRK, Tyler Dralle 16-29, Terrence Hall 2-8, Nick Duehr 1-7, Jay Blank 3-5, Sammy Lizarraga 1-2; BETT, Cyle Cox, 17-116; Justice O'Conner 20-77 3 TD, Xavier LaDouceur 3-15.
Passing -- CRK, Lizarraga 14-35-2 131 yards 1 TD; Dralle 0-1-0; BETT, Cox 8-19-0 131 yards 1 TD
Receiving -- CRK, Drake Brewster 6-42, Shaun Beyer 5-37 1 TD, Dralle 3-52; BETT, Suni Lane 3-66, Austin Cullor 2-39 1 TD, O'Conner 2-17, Mac Schoenfelder 1-9.