It was an astute – albeit simple – proclamation.
In just nine words uttered over a telephone interview on Wednesday, Navarre head coach Jay Walls provided the reasoning behind the success of his record-breaking Raiders squad: “We’ve come up with plays when we needed them.”
It was not Walls’ intent to oversimplify the accomplishments of Navarre (12-1), which last week celebrated its first region championship with a 28-21 win over fifth-ranked Columbia. In fact, the first-year head Raiders coach went on to praise every facet of a crew that has shined on both sides of the ball.
And what better place to start than with his defense, which has been the catalyst behind the Raiders’ program-record 11-game win streak.
“The credit goes to our defense for being really good all year long,” said Walls, whose Raiders will host top-ranked and undefeated Gainesville (13-0) tonight in a 6A state semifinal matchup set to kick off at 7:30 p.m. “They’ve provided that consistency week in and week out.”’
And that’s reflected in the stats.
For instance, the Raiders have given up just 16.7 points per game and haven’t allowed any of their opponents to reach their scoring average. The latter stat rang especially true against Columbia, which came into the Region 6A championship putting up more than 40 points per contest. But the Tigers, who were denied the game-tying touchdown in the waning minutes despite having a first-and-goal at the Raiders’ 9, just couldn’t break a unit that that, like Walls pointed out, has come up with the big plays when called upon.
But the question remains, can the Raider defense produce a similar result against a Gainesville offense averaging nearly 40 points a game and coming off a 42-10 drubbing of Armwood?
Walls believes so, noting that Gainesville and Columbia run almost carbon-copy offenses.
“Gainesville is very similar to Columbia offensively,” Walls said. “They are a multiple-formation offense, they shift a lot and give you a lot of motion. They have great running backs in (Rafael Webb and Tony James, who combined for 342 yards and four scores last week) and their quarterback (Mark Cato) is a very good athlete who throws the ball really well and is very accurate. Basically, they execute very well on offense. You just don’t see them botching plays or making a lot of mistakes.
“Knowing that, our guys have to play very aggressive. We kept it simple last week with aggression and physical play, and we have to do the same thing against Gainesville.”
Navarre’s offense, which is averaging 382 yards a game (245 rushing, 137 passing) and 29 points per game, also has some thoroughbreds.
The go-to option in the spread offense is running back Jay Warren, who’s averaging 136 rushing yards per game to go along with 17 scores. Helping shoulder the load in the backfield is Johnny Robinson-Pettus, who has six rushing touchdowns, and quarterback Andrew Rieves, who is averaging 161 yards of total offense (122 passing, 39 rushing) with 13 touchdown throws and six rushing scores. At his disposal is a strong receiving core led by Clemson commitment Jordan Leggett, who’s averaging 75 yards a game to go along with seven scores. Throw in five scores from Gatlin Casey, who hauled in two huge catches in the game-winning, fourth-quarter drive last week against Columbia, and Mikul Smith, and the Raiders have thrived in a multifaceted scheme.
“Our ability to run the football has been big for us with Jay and Johnny, Andrew, Gatlin and Nick (Benton),” Walls said. “And being able to throw the football has added an extra element to our offense. Andrew’s done a great job of coming through with some clutch throws and has done a good job of spreading the football around to Jordan and Gatlin and the rest of our guys. The big thing for us has been trying to make people defend the field. When it comes to that, we’ve done well.”
That share-the-wealth mentality worked against Columbia, which entered the region championship allowing less than 12 points per game before giving up a season-high 28 points. Rieves accounted for two scores – a 40-yard run and a 36-yard pass to Warren – and Warren racked up a pair of touchdowns to accent an 86-yard kickoff return by Benton to open the game.
Looking to continue that momentum, the Raiders’ offense will face a stiff test in a Gainesville unit that has held eight of its opponents to 10 or fewer points and is allowing 11.5 points per game.
Boding well for the Raiders is home-field advantage. Sporting a 7-0 record in the friendly confines of Bennett C. Russell Stadium, a record never achieved before in the history of the program, Walls is thankful his team doesn’t have to switch up its routine today.
“There’s no question that being at home is a plus for us,” he said. “Our kids get to go through their regular Friday routine. We expect a big home crowd but we also know Gainesville will bring a ton of people. It’s going to be an exciting night.”
The excitement generated from last week’s historic win hasn’t waned in the Raider locker room.
“It’s been pretty upbeat around here,” Walls said. “That was a big emotional win last week and it was a pretty physical game. But even though the guys have been though a lot, we’re not banged up or worn out. We’re just ready to play.”
Tonight's winner will face the winner of the other 6A semifinal, either Naples (12-0) or Miami Central (10-2).
Gainesville (13-0) at Navarre (12-1)
The facts: In uncharted waters, Navarre’s 11-game win streak and 7-0 mark at home will be put to the test in tonight’s 6A state semifinal against top-ranked Gainesville. The Raiders, who defeated fifth-ranked Columbia last week to earn the program’s first district title, have never advanced this far in the postseason, while Gainesville is just two years removed from its last state semifinal trip. The rewriting of the record books has come under the tutelage of first-year head coach Jay Walls, who’s had his eyes on a state title all year.
Quick hits: Navarre has outscored opponents by an average margin of 29-16.7…Navarre is 7-0 at home and has won 11 straight… Navarre’s offense is averaging 382 yards a game (245 rushing, 137 passing)…. The go-to option in the spread offense is Jay Warren, who’s averaging 136 rushing yards per game to go along with 17 scores…. Helping shoulder the load in the backfield is Johnny Robinson-Pettus, who has six rushing touchdowns, and quarterback Andrew Rieves, who is averaging 161 yards of total offense (122 passing, 39 rushing) with 13 touchdown throws and six rushing scores…Rieves’ go-to target is Jordan Leggett, who’s averaging 75 yards a game to go along with seven scores…Gatlin Casey, who hauled in two huge catches in the game-winning, fourth-quarter drive last week against Columbia, has five touchdowns… Gainesville has outscored opponents by an average margin of 39.5-11.5…Gainesville is 6-0 on road…Gainesville running back Rahael Webb, who’s averaging well over 100 rushing yards and two scores a game, had 214 yards and three scores in last week’s win. Tony James added 128 yards and a score.
Last year: The teams did not play each other.
Last week: Navarre 28, Columbia 21; Gainesville 42, Armwood 10
Radio: JockJive.com, 6:50 p.m.