With an 0-3 non-conference performance — which head coach Roger Geise admitted should be 2-1 — and their bye week behind them, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets will attempt to notch their first victory of the season as they visit the No. 23 Louisiana College Wildcats at 1 p.m. Saturday in the American Southwest Conference opener for both teams.
“We should be 2-1 and we’re not, and I thought about firing the defensive coordinator because he let two slip away, but unfortunately that’s me so I’m not so sure I want to do that,” Geise said. “What I can’t be upset about is the fact that the kids have played hard.
“Anytime you play a game you have to try and learn from what has transpired, where you need to improve and what you need to work on. Every team in conference is 0-0 now and conference games are very important, but we can’t forget what we’ve done in the past.”
With the Yellow Jackets’ bye falling last week, Howard Payne spent that practice time working with the younger players on the roster, as well as tweaking the defense.
“We did a reassessment of some things we were doing, not from a standpoint of making big changes, but trying to figure out how to fit what we’re doing to our kids, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Geise said. “We’ve made a few changes, but nothing significant has changed scheme-wise. We’re just going back to the way we did things last year. Last year we played solid defense, not great, but solid. The biggest area of change will be the back end where we’re going to play more zone than anything else. I would love to play man-to-man and man-press, but we’ve had issues with that.”
Howard Payne heads into the conference opener allowing 37 points and 395 yards — 291 passing and 104 rushing — with five turnovers forced. J.D King leads the Yellow Jackets with 28 tackles and a sack followed by Bo Ross with 22 tackles, including five for loss, Victor Gonzales and Jonne Warnstaff with 18 apiece and 17 tackles and an interception from Josh Eppler.
Louisiana College (2-1) — which is coming off a 25-22 loss to No. 6 Wesley — is generating 27 points and 435 total yards, including 259 passing, per contest.
Ryan Montague has rushed for 451 yards and six touchdowns, while Jamie Bunting is 63 of 118 for 777 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Leading receivers for the Wildcats include D’Mario Parker (16-145, TD), Jerome Wright (12-183), Kyle Galyon (12-169, TD) and Cortland Bell (9-177, TD).
“They return their quarterback from last year, a very good running back that was a freshman a year ago and most of their offensive line,” Geise said. “The biggest area of change is receiver where they lost two outstanding ones from last year, and one was a Division I transfer. They’ve gone to the run more, I can remember when they threw it all over the field, now they’re about 52 percent pass and 48 percent run. They’re going to be a big challenge for us. We’re going to have to run like crazy to the ball and try and contain their running back as best we can.”
On the flip side of the ball, Howard Payne enters Saturday’s game averaging 16 points and 315 yards — 173 rushing and 141 passing — per outing, with 11 turnovers.
Adrian Lighteard has rushed for 229 yards and two touchdowns, while Zarron Dove has chipped in 136 yards and quarterback Thomas Head has contributed 89 yards and a pair of scores.
Through the air, Head is 52 of 73 for 420 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Leading receivers for HPU include Tyson Swanner (16-125), Karl Stewart (14-92) and Tristian Fuentes (5-93).
The Wildcats counter with a defense that is giving up just 18 points and 257 yards — 145 rushing and 122 passing — per game.
Peter Ford leads Louisiana College with 20 tackles, one sack and one interception trailed by 17 tackles from Dominic Graham, 16 from Richard Logan, 14 each from Reggie Calhoun and Preston Thibeaux — who has also tallied three sacks — and 11 tackles and two picks by LaDraveyun Lewis.
“Our offense has done a good job controlling the ball, getting yards and getting key first downs,” Geise said. “We don’t have the type of athletes you can give the ball and have them go 80 yards, so we’ll have to move the chains and hang on to the football for good lengths of time, as well as have a solid kicking game.”
In terms of the importance of winning the ASC opener, Geise feels a victory at Louisiana College could turn around the entire HPU season.
“It’d be huge to beat them,” Geise said. “After Mary Hardin-Baylor, they could be the second-best team in the conference. Obviously we’d all feel pretty good and it would do a lot for our kids. They’ve a hard time believing what I’m telling them that we have good football team, we have just made mistakes at inappropriate times that have stolen victories from us. A win at Louisiana College would do wonders and get us some confidence.”