Fans stood on their feet cheering as loud as they could — some ringing cowbells — as they waited for a pressure-packed moment to unfold in Navarre’s opening round playoff game against Escambia Friday night.
There were two minutes and 58 seconds left on the clock and the Raiders needed a stop more than they ever needed one before. The Gators had the football on the Navarre 32-yard line and were threatening to rip the heart out of the Raiders with an upset victory.
But when push came to shove, when win or go home were the only two options, the Raiders rose to the occasion, stopping the Gators in crunch time, the final defensive play coming when Royce Thomas popped the ball out of the hands of an Escambia receiver on fourth down.
Navarre took over and never looked back, running a few more plays to run out the clock and secure a thrilling 40-35 victory on a chilly November evening at Emmitt Smith Field in Pensacola.
“Coach (Jay) Walls preaches to us that we have to finish,” senior defensive back Lee Jones said. “We went out there and said we are going to finish. We aren’t going home. We ain’t got nothing else to do next week.”
Nothing except play football, of course, as the Raiders move on to play at Tate next Friday in the regional semifinal round of the 6A playoffs.
A year ago it was the Aggies who spoiled a magical season for Navarre. The Raiders went into the playoffs last season with a 10-0 record. They left disappointed and heartbroken, losing 23-22 in double overtime.
As the players celebrated Friday’s win, they weren’t looking back to last year, only to the week ahead.
“It feels great to win this game. We’re excited to move on to the next round,” senior linebacker Xavier Fernandez said. “We’re ready for this rematch.”
Tate rallied to defeat Gulf Breeze 42-38 Friday to punch its ticket to the next round. The Raiders (10-1), meanwhile, were in command early against the Gators (5-6) but had to fight off a furious comeback.
Navarre had already beaten Escambia once, battling back for a 17-13 road win last month. The Raiders avoided a slow start this time, scoring on the opening drive when Caine Adamson connected with Dante Wright on a 36-yard scoring strike.
Wright caught the ball in stride, slipped out of a few tackles, nearly losing his balance along the way, and stayed on his feet to run into the end zone for a 7-0 advantage.
The Raiders extended their lead to 14-0 on Michael Carter’s 32-yard run up the middle with 3:51 to play in the second. It was one of four touchdowns the North Carolina commit scored in the win.
“It means everything to play that well,” Carter said “You dream about this type of stuff, this postseason feel, this environment. I love it.”
Wright’s second TD catch came on an 8-yard pass from Adamson with 2:02 to go in the half. He leaped up over a couple of defenders and hung onto the ball as Navarre took a 21-7 lead into halftime.
“I’ve said this before. Dante is going to college for free,” Carter said.
The Raiders seemed to be in cruise control after starting off the second half with a 1-yard TD run by Carter to extend the lead to 28-7. The score was set up on Jordan Williams’ 41-yard catch on a pass from Sage Chambers.
Then things got crazy. Escambia scored twice in less than two minutes to cut the Navarre lead to 28-21 with 5:39 left in the third.
Less than a minute later, Navarre was up 34-28 as it struggled to deal with the Gators’ triple-option attack.
“They got us with some trick plays and used some different looks,” Walls said. Credit to them. They didn’t give up. They didn’t quit. They almost came back but we stopped them when we needed to.”
A 51-yard TD run by Carter gave Navarre a 40-28 advantage. Escambia punched back, slicing the Navarre lead to 40-35 with 8:24 left.
Suddenly, a ton of pressure was on the shoulders of the Raiders. They refused to fold.
“We lost our edge or something in that second half,” Fernandez said. “But we kept pressing, kept pressing and kept pressing and came out with a win.”
And now it’s on to the next round where the Raiders hope to prevail and move one step closer to a state title.
“We have to keep getting better,” Carter said. “That is the key.”