By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports
NATCHITOCHES – The 2021 Natchitoches Central Chiefs developed a penchant for fast starts as they broke a long losing streak and climbed among the highest-ranked teams in Class 5A football.
In the first two minutes of the 2022 season opener Friday night at Turpin Stadium, it seemed NCHS had rebooted that game plan.
The Chiefs exploded to a two-score lead, collecting a pair of turnovers and immediately converting each into six points. But they had to hold on against visiting Woodlawn to escape an upset and salt away an 18-14 triumph, fueled by 255 yards rushing by senior tailback Jeremiah Miles.
After last year’s breakthrough, many Natchitoches Central fans expect more of the same, that’s unlikely. This is a different year, with a bunch of new Chiefs on the field, and they have some growing up to do — along with a major MIA to handle.
Coach James Wilkerson confirmed after the game that starting quarterback B.J. Young will miss “at least the first half of the season” with a shoulder injury sustained early in last Friday’s jamboree. NCHS turned to a pair of sophomores, left-hander Adam Guillet and righty Lannon Collum. Friday night, they combined to complete 8 of 14 passes for 88 yards with one painful goalline interception halting a great third-quarter scoring chance.
“I’m proud of my quarterbacks,” he said. “It’s tough having B.J. on the sideline with us, working on the iPad, helping all he can, but that’s where we are. Those two sophomores competed and both made some plays, and they will get better and better and so will our offense.
“We had a lot of new starters on both sides of the ball, in their first real varsity game, and you want it to go perfectly for them, but it’s never going to work out that way,” said Wilkerson. “I’m proud of them. We made a lot of mistakes, but we kept coming back.”
It couldn’t have started better for the Chiefs. On the game’s first play, Woodlawn’s pass downfield sailed into the arms of NCHS safety Zecarious Thompson, who scurried 21 yards to the Knights’ 44. NCHS made it sting on the next snap, as Miles bolted through a hole on the right side and went the distance, untouched, 23 seconds into action.
Complicating the situation, Woodlawn fumbled the kickoff, setting up NCHS at the 26. Three plays later, it was 12-0 after Miles tallied from the one behind the interior of the Chiefs’ huge offensive line.
But just when a blowout seemed imminent, it wasn’t. The Knights showed some backbone, and took advantage of a series of bad snaps and mishandled footballs that stalemated the NCHS attack. Woodlawn scored a safety off one of those poor snaps six minutes before halftime.
Despite Miles — who was Caylin Demars’ understudy last season — slicing through the defense for a series of chunk gains on 27 carries, Woodlawn had its chances.
Isiah Kennedy (11-25-1, 187 yards) found explosive receiver Brandon Henderson on a post pattern for 84-yard TD late in the third quarter. But the Chiefs replied with what turned out to be the difference, a 61-yard, nine-play drive capped by an 18-yard burst over left guard by Miles on fourth and inches with 9:54 left.
Back came the Knights. Again, it was Henderson, who halted NCHS with that goalline interception in the third quarter, making it happen, working free in the back right corner of the end zone and catching a 24-yard touchdown from Kennedy on fourth-and-15 with 7:44 left to draw the visitors within four.
That was set up by a fumble recovery by Woodlawn defensive lineman Chadrick Jones. He did it again on the Chiefs’ next play, collecting a Miles miscue and handing the Knights a great chance, starting just outside the red zone at the 25.
In three snaps, Woodlawn was in striking position, second-and-four at the NCHS 7, but the Chiefs stacked up a run, then successfully defended two passes into the end zone.
“Our defense came up big when it mattered most,” said Wilkerson. “With that kind of quarterback, there’s so much they could do. A lot of new starters for us, who have never been in that situation, I’m just very proud of them.”
NCHS took over at its 10 with 5:07 left and got 51 yards on four Miles runs in a game-ending drive.
“Jeremiah had a great year last fall, and for almost any other team, he would have been the starter and the star, but we had Caylin,” said Wilkerson. “Now Jeremiah’s a guy we lean on. He was so down on himself for that fumble, but with the game on the line in the last five minutes, he came back and picked up big first downs so we could run out the clock.”
The Chiefs kept it interesting, surviving their 11th fumble (another bad snap), but this time Jones or any other Knight couldn’t get there fast enough.
Natchitoches Central 18, Woodlawn 14
Score by quarters
Woodlawn | 2 | 0 | 6 | 6 | – 14
Natchitoches Central | 12 | 0 | 0 | 6 | – 18
NC – Jeremiah Miles 44 run (kick failed)
NC – Miles 1 run (kick failed)
W – Safety, bad snap downed in end zone
W – Brandon Henderson 84 pass from Isiah Kennedy (pass failed)
NC – Miles 18 run (pass failed)
W – Henderson 24 pass from Kennedy (run failed)
Rushing – NCHS, Miles 27-255, 3 TDs; Guillet 3-minus 21, Team 2-minus 35. W, Quintin Wilson 7-14, Brandon Henderson 1-1, Isiah Kennedy 3-minus 33.
Passing – NCHS, Adam Guillet 5-8-1, 43 yards; Lannon Collum 3-5, 45 yards. W, Isiah Kennedy 1.1-25-1, 187 yards, 2 TDs.
Receiving – NCHS, Braden Woods 3-33, Camryn Davis 4-36. W, Brandon Henderson 6-140, 2 TDs; Jaylon Allen 3-21, DJ Bates 2-13, Anthony Bryant 1-12.