AV Smith tossed a pair of touchdown passes, Frank Peasant had a pair of scoring runs and Chris Hale had two scores for the undefeated Gators.
PENSACOLA — His team's three-touchdown, halftime lead aside, Escambia coach Mike Bennett saw enough imperfections to merit some motivation.
“I didn't think we played with any intensity the first half,” he said. “I thought we just came out here and sort of drug through this (game) in the cold. So, when I got them inside, we had a little talk in there.”
Message heeded. With loud exclamation.
The unbeaten, region top-seed Gators (11-0), rolled Friday through their Region 1-6A quarterfinal game, blowing past New Smyrna Beach 44-0 in another emphatic performance by their standout seniors.
Quarterback AV Smith tossed a pair of touchdown passes, Frank Peasant had a pair of scoring runs, Chris Hale had a TD reception and run.
And the Gators senior-laden defense again dominated an opponent.
“Our offensive and defensive lines are playing out of their minds right now,” Smith said. “Any time you have that happen, it makes it easy for the skill guys.”
In reaching the second round of the state playoffs for a third straight year, the Gators have outscored their past four opponents by a combined 193-14.
They will host Mainland, a 38-20 winner Friday at home against Pensacola's Booker T. Washington, in next Friday's region semifinal.
“Mainland has some great athletes, great speed like always,” Bennett said. “They play a tough schedule there and we'll see.
“We have to get past the second round. We have been stuck on the second round the last two years and we need to get past it.”
New Smyrna Beach (7-4), which reached the playoffs for the first time in seven years, forced punts on three of Escambia's first four possessions, but couldn't grab any first-half momentum swing.
“It was the way we needed it to go,” said New Smyrna coach John Wilkinson, one of Florida's all-time top coaches with four state titles at Cocoa High and a 143-27 record in 13 seasons, before leaving in 2018 to coach his son, Cooper, now a sophomore at New Smyrna.
“I think (Escambia) came out a little bit….well, you are 10-0 and No. 1 in the classification,” he said. “They are real-well coached. Coach Bennett has won a state championship (at Pensacola High) and you don't do that by accident.
“Their kids play hard and I think schematically, their defensive front is tough to handle. We start three sophomores on our offensive line and that is not a recipe for success. Their team speed is something to deal with.”
Escambia's senior leadership is another asset.
Smith pointed out that Peasant met with the Gators' offensive linemen before kickoff to remind of the urgency. After some early struggles, the holes opened and Peasant was a difference-maker like he's been all season.
“Frank had a long talk before the game with the offensive line, because he knows how tough it is in the playoffs to run the ball,” Smith said. “They came out here and had a good game.”
While Bennett was displeased with some of the first half, the Gators' signature touchdown was created by Smith with 4:27 left before halftime.
On a play from the NSB 37, where it appeared he might be sacked, Smith deftly spun around, headed the other way and threw on the run to a wide open Chris Hale for the touchdown.
“On that play, I just knew it was going to happen. I knew it in my head,” Smith said. “And when I saw (Hale) come free, I had to get the move. I trusted my instincts and just made the play.”
The Gators' defense, meanwhile, twice thwarted NSB on fourth-down attempts, including one at the Escambia 20-yard line after the Barracudas' drive produced their only two first downs of the half.
After Peasant's 32 yard touchdown with 4:28 left in the third quarter, it triggered a running clock, something Escambia has done frequently the past month.
“We played a whole lot better in the second half on both sides,” Bennett said.
He credits his son, Brett, the Gators' offensive coordinator, for how well this offense has played this season.
“He's done such a great job. Probably the only time we mess up is when I call a play,” Bennett said. “So I need to stay away. I'm proud of him. We just have to keep going.”
New Smyrna Beach heads into the future with promise. Wilkinson looks at his roster of freshmen and sophomores and likes the prospects.
“To go 7-3 and 7-4, the first back to back winning seasons in 10 years,” he said. “I think we are building and we have a nice group coming back that I am looking forward to working with and we'll just keep plugging away.”
Escambia hopes to do the same in its playoff run.