Chiefs produce late-game heroics, but a few plays short of signature win

Zion Thompson works upfield for Natchitoches Central Friday night at Turpin Stadium in a last-second loss to Parkway. (Journal photo by KEVIN SHANNAHAN)

By MATT VINES, Journal Sports

For all the plays that Natchitoches Central did make Friday to lead once-beaten Parkway for more than 40 of the game’s 48 minutes, a handful of negative plays ultimately decided the Chiefs’ fate in a last-second 27-26 loss at Northwestern State’s Turpin Stadium. 

Without the state’s leading receiver Cam Davis (after an ankle injury early in the fourth quarter), the NCHS offense engineered an 80-yard drive to retake the lead, 26-24, when running back Zion Thompson scored from 14 yards with 1:40 remaining. 

But a Panthers offense that largely spit and sputtered all night thanks to a swarming NCHS defense kicked into gear, piecing together a lengthy drive of their own to set up stud kicker Aeron Burrell for a game-winning 31-yard field goal with no time remaining. 

Many of Parkway’s biggest plays came on third-and-long. In the game-winning drive, quarterback Kaleb Williams escaped pressure on third-and-19 to scramble for 30 yards. A 28-yard pass to Jayden Lewis which involved a missed tackle positioned Burrell for the walk-off field goal.

“I was proud of our guys for answering the call, and we had some guys step up big time,” said NCHS coach Jess Curtis. “We just have to make the plays when they are there to be made in crunch time. 

“Our defense played well for the most part, we just had some missed tackles that hurt us. We have been close the last few weeks, but it’s about winning. We just have to keep doing the right things, and the wins will come.” 

Chiefs quarterback Owen Smith appeared to be the hero by guiding the Chiefs (2-6, 1-4 District 1-5A) 80 yards down the field against statistically the best defense in northwest Louisiana. Parkway (7-1, 4-1) held five of its last six opponents to one score or less (including three shutouts). 

Smith connected with AJ Scott (30 yards) and Naiim Helaire (20 yards) on big gains while picking up a fourth-and-four with his legs. 

NCHS found success on the ground in spurts against a stout Parkway run defense, no more so than when Thompson ran for the go-ahead score (26-24) with 1:40 remaining. 

The Chiefs missed a two-point conversion that would have eliminated Burrell from the equation, instead leaving the door open to win with a field goal at the end. 

“It’s tough. We’ve been close the last few weeks,” said Curtis, whose team has three one-score losses against Benton, Captain Shreve and Parkway among its four straight defeats. “But it’s about winning, and we have to keep doing the right things, and the wins will come.” 

Thompson topped the 100-yard mark (121 yards) and scored two touchdowns while Smith threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns with one interception on 14-21 passing. 

But two negative plays particularly made NCHS fans wince most. 

Leading 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter with Parkway facing a third-and-13, Williams connected with Lewis for 71 yards in which Lewis broke a tackle from the only Chief that had a chance to grab him. Parkway jumped on top 24-20, its first lead of the game, with less than six minutes remaining. 

Williams threw for 191 yards and a score on 11-25 passing. Lewis hauled in four catches for 152 yards. 

“We are starting four sophomores on offense, and for them to face adversity the way they did against a great team like (NCHS) is really incredible,” Parkway coach Coy Brotherton said. “I’m super proud of all those guys for the fight they showed. 

“Jayden Lewis had a great tonight as well, breaking tackles and making big plays.” 

The Chiefs’ defense stood tall on most possessions despite being faced with horrid field position. 

And it looked like NCHS made another superb stop when the Chiefs stymied Parkway after an interception handed the Panthers possession in the red zone. 

But NCHS jumped offsides on a field goal attempt, reviving Parkway’s drive in which Antonio Gladney plunged in from 2 yards to slice the Chiefs advantage to 20-17. 

NCHS (2-6, 1-4 District 1-5A) built double-digit leads in each half thanks to a stout defense and an offense that mixed explosive passing plays with a steady ground game.

Davis made his mark early, hauling in touchdown passes of 44 yards and 57 yards as the Chiefs sprinted to a 13-0 first-quarter lead. He finished with 118 yards on five grabs with Scott adding 108 yards on six receptions. 

The Chiefs’ defense started the game with a fourth-down stop near midfield, a trend that continued as five Parkway drives that started on their own 45 or better resulted in just three points in the first half. 

Parkway was able to piece together longer drives as Gladney capped a 67-yard drive with a 14-yard run to cut the Chiefs’ edge to 13-7. Gladney rushed for 73 yards on 20 touches. 

The Panthers converted a bad NCHS punt snap into a 43-yard Burrell field goal just before the half that drew the visitors within 13-10. 

After the Chiefs forced another fourth-down miss from Parkway, NCHS cashed in with a 9-yard Thompson scoring run to go up 20-10 midway through the third quarter. 

But the offsides on the field goal and missed tackle on the 71-yard Parkway strike set the stage for the squads to exchange late-game heroics. 

“We’re on the road, and we faced two double-digit deficits,” Brotherton said. “Games like that is what it’s all about, and these guys being able to be in a dog fight like tonight and find a way to win is huge.”