NAVARRE – For a Navarre program on the precipice of making history, it was a dream start.
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Nick Benton fielded the opening kickoff at the Raiders’ 16 yard line, spilt a pair of tacklers and juked the Columbia Kicker. The senior was gone.
The 86-yard score would serve as momentum as the Raiders built a 21-0 advantage in the opening 13 minutes of the Region 1-6A championship, but the lead would not prove insurmountable.
The Raiders gave up 21 straight points, but they’d rally in the clutch.
Jay Warren scored on 6-yard touchdown run with 7:11 in the fourth quarter and Navarre’s defense followed with a goal-line stand in the wan-ing seconds to lift the Raiders to a 28-21 win Friday night over the Tigers.
“It was just a great effort by our kids,” Navarre head coach Jay Walls said. “To get that momentum early with 21 straight points and then for the defense to do what it did, we just came up with big plays when we needed them.”
It was a program-record 11th straight win for the Raiders, who are in the state semifinals for the first time in the history of the 13th-year program.
“In 2010, we didn’t make it, so this means a lot,” said Benton, alluding to the 34-33 overtime loss in the region championship to Lincoln two years ago. “We just came together and got it done.”
Next up for the Raiders (12-1) is top-ranked Gainesville, which defeated Armwood 42-10 Friday night and will now shift its focus to ending Navarre’s perfect 7-0 mark at home in the 6A state semifinal matchup.
Not only did the win continue the Raiders’ transformative season, it ended a 10-game win streak for the 11-2 Tigers, who entered the contest outscoring opponents 38.4-8.8.
The 8.8 points allowed was on the strength of four shutouts as the Tigers hadn’t even allowed more than 20 points all year.
But Benton’s run put the crew behind the 8-ball early.
“We jumped on them early,” Navarre quarterback Andrew Rieves said. “Nick Benton is the truth, No. 12. We call him one for the money, two for the show. He came up big for us and then the offense was rolling.”
Feeding off Benton’s touchdown, the Raiders multi-threat offense just couldn’t be contained early on.
Rieves, who had 202 yards of total offense (146 passing, 56 rushing), scored on a 40-yard keeper up the right sideline midway through the first quarter and the senior quarterback later found Jay Warren, who piled up 96 rushing yards, on a screen pass that went 36 yards to paydirt to lift the Raiders to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.
But the Tigers’ offense, which entered Friday night averaging 38.8 points per game and actually outgained the Raiders 301-222 in the first half, wouldn’t go quietly into the night.
Capitalizing on an interception from Rieves early in the second quarter, Ronnie Timmons scored on a 38-yard run up the right sideline to cut the lead to 21-7. Not even three minutes later after a Chandler Moorer missed 39-yard field goal attempt, Lonnie Underwood went untouched up the middle into the end zone on a 15-yard score to send the Tigers into the locker room down 21-14.
Timmons, who had 240 rushing yards and two scores, then took the first carry of the second half 65 yards to knot the score, but the Raiders would answer.
After a quiet third quarter, Warren found the end zone in the fourth and then the defense delivered a goal-line stand with under three minutes left. After its offense failed to deliver a first down on the ensuing drive, Elijah Appel sealed the program-defining win with an interception.
“The defense came up huge, just huge,” Walls said. “They’ve been there for us all season, and that was the case again tonight.”