By MATT VINES, Journal Sports
BENTON – Staring down a 20-point deficit, Natchitoches Central didn’t blink Friday.
The Chiefs rattled off 21 straight points in the second half into a fourth-quarter lead, but when Benton needed a score and a stop, that’s exactly what it got.
The Tigers took a 42-35 edge with less than three minutes remaining then intercepted NCHS quarterback Owen Smith to spoil an impressive Chiefs comeback Friday.
“I was proud of how fought back on the road, but we must learn to play four quarters,” said NCHS coach Jess Curtis. “We left some plays on the field tonight.
“We opened the game poorly, but we made adjustments on the board and between our ears.”
The Chiefs (2-4, 1-2 District 1-5A) took their only second-half lead on a Dillon Braxton 22-yard touchdown run, snatching a 35-34 edge after a Mateo Restrepo extra point with six minutes remaining.
Braxton (2-4, 1-2 District 1-5A) caught a fourth-down pass earlier in the drive, which started in Benton territory after the Chiefs defense continued to swallow any momentum the Benton offense could muster.
But the Tigers again found their rhythm when they needed it most, leading one final scoring drive after mustering 34 points in the first half.
Quarterback Jeff King found Trey Smith from 38 yards, and King ran in the two-point conversion himself to build the 42-35 lead with 2:47 left.
The Benton defense, which surrendered more than 60 points in each of its last two games, stood tall on the Chiefs’ final drive.
Smith converted one fourth down to keep NCHS’s chances alive, but Benton’s Cole Austin intercepted Smith near the NCHS 40-yard line to dash the Chiefs’ comeback hopes.
“I’m so proud of my guys,” said Benton coach Reynolds Moore. “It would’ve been easy to fold and quit after losing four straight games, but this has been our best week of practice yet.
“It shows a lot of character from them.”
Benton snapped a four-game losing skid while NCHS started a skid of its own, dropping the last two.
The Chiefs outgained the Tigers 380-326 and had fewer penalty yards, but Benton had a 2-1 edge in turnovers forced.
NCHS running back Kelton Howard scored two rushing touchdowns, while both he and Zion Thompson gained 78 yards each. Howard added two catches for 10 yards.
Both of Howard’s touchdowns came in the third quarter as NCHS stormed to an explosive second half.
“We just came out flat and didn’t get things going like we had in the first half,” Moore said. “(Natchitoches Central) went to a more base defense with a different front that gave us some trouble.
“We hadn’t worked a lot against that this week in practice.”
Smith threw for 207 yards on 21-of-31, with most of those incompletions coming in the final minutes.
Benton’s Greg Manning, who picked up crucial chunks of yardage on Benton’s go-ahead touchdown, set the pace in the first half with three rushing touchdowns and finished with 96 yards.
After both teams traded blows with NCHS leading 14-12 early in the second quarter, Benton reeled off three straight touchdowns to build the 34-14 lead.
Benton’s King hit his teammate Smith on a 78-yard bomb for the game’s first score, and then Manning scored on touchdowns runs of 1, 31 and four yards.
King capped Benton’s first-half scoring with a 6-yard scamper.
“We really got into a good rhythm and pushed our tempo,” Moore said. “Natchitoches Central struggled with it during that stretch.”
NCHS’s first-half scores consisted of a 6-yard Cam Davis run and a 1-yard plunge from Braxton. Davis had a game-high 10 catches for 88 yards. Braxton rushed for 29 yards and two scores while added 43 receiving yards.
The Chiefs start a three-game homestand next Friday at Turpin Stadium against Captain Shreve (5-1, 3-0) who thumped district favorite Airline in a 60-35 contest.