Two teams seeking their initial victory of the season clash at 6 p.m. Saturday at Moore Stadium in Abilene as the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets open their nine-game American Southwest Conference schedule against the McMurry War Hawks.
The Yellow Jackets (0-1) dropped their debut under new head coach Braxton Harris by a 63-34 count to Southwestern Assemblies of God on Sept. 2, and experienced their bye last week. McMurry (0-2, 0-1) has opened its campaign with a 10-0 loss to Oklahoma Panhandle State and last week’s 56-12 thrashing at the hands of Southwestern in the War Hawks’ ASC opener.
Looking back on HPU’s opener, the Yellow Jackets fell in a 35-0 hole before tallying 20 unanswered points to close the gap to 15 at halftime. SAGU responded with 21 third-quarter points, however, and was able to pull away.
“I was disappointed because I felt like we hurt ourselves in that game,” Harris said of his first game as a head coach. “When you have as many penalties as we had and turnovers early in the ball game, obviously those aren’t good things, coupled with allowing big plays. We really hit the trifecta of bad things happening, and it all happened in the first quarter, and just like that we’re down 35-0 in the first quarter.
“We won the second quarter 20-0, scored 20 points and created two turnovers. You saw a glimpse of what this football team can be, and that was the most exciting thing. You want to come in here and see your guys fight, and I felt like we did that for four quarters.”
Though the Yellow Jackets’ bye fell early on the schedule, Harris likes the placement as HPU has been able to make adjustments from its lone non-conference game as it prepares for the rigors of the ASC slate.
“Two things we’ve really focused on is being able to do our jobs and being physical, so the bye week came at a great time time for us,” Harris said. “We’ve been going to work on knowing our assignments and making sure we go play football the way we’re supposed to and don’t beat ourselves in certain spots.”
After a narrow loss to Oklahoma Panhandle State in the opener, McMurry struggled mightily against Southwestern, yielding 585 total yards while amassing 265. McMurry, which spotted Southwestern the first 28 points, also committed three turnovers.
Still, Harris knows the Yellow Jackets, who are in the midst of a 13-game skid overall, can take no opponent lightly.
“They’re in the same boat we’re in, looking for that first win,” Harris said. “Any time you’re doing that, plus going to their place for their first home game of the season, we expect a great effort from their guys.”
McMurry is averaging just 6 points and 241.5 yards — 183.5 passing and 58 rushing — per game thus far. Quarterback Kevin Hurley Jr. has completed 24 of 44 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, while leading receivers include former Louisiana Tech Bulldog Eriel Dorsey (9-139) along with Emmanuel Mulumba (4-102, TD), Jeremiah Jefferson (6-41) and running back Kelvaughn Hayes (2-32, TD). Wade Barthelemy Jr. has rushed for a team-high 129 yards with no other War Hawk eclipsing more than 34.
The McMurry defense is led by linebackers Michael Green Jr. (26 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack), Josh Smith (23 tackles, 1 INT) and Jacob Ferguson (14 tackles) and defensive backs Jordan Washington (20 tackles, 1 INT), Charles Smith (17 tackles, 2 TFL) and Kasey Dean (11 tackles).
“They have some dynamic playmakers on the offensive side of the ball and defensively they have some guys that have been in the battle,” Harris said.
In HPU’s opener against SAGU, the Yellow Jackets finished with 311 yards — 236 rushing and 75 passing.
Quarterback Caisson Montieth rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown, Hunter Batten added 64 yards and a score, and Claude Rogers (33 yards), Kaidrion Latson (28 yards) and Melvin Thompson (12 yards) made contributions.
Through the air, Montieth connected on 11 of 19 passes for 75 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Eric Haverstock caught six passes for 46 yards while Tariq Gray grabbed a 22-yard touchdown catch.
“Offensively we did some good things being able to run the football two weeks ago, but we have to take care of the football early in the ball game,” Harris said. “We also have to be able to establish a passing game. If we get the passing game going, we have some different things where we can move some guys around and get them the ball.
“I’d like to see us win first down more this week, that’s a big point of emphasis. When we won first down last game we moved the football, so first down is a really big down for us.”
Defensively, HPU yielded 509 yards — 255 on the ground and 254 through the air. Standouts included Tevin Dawson and Austin Kilgore with seven tackles each, Jorden Smith and Anthony Lindsey with four apiece, Patrick Hunt with three tackles and pick and Brady Wade with three takedowns on a fumble recovery.
“Defensively we have to line up and play fast, physical football and get our eyes in the right place,” Harris said. “We also have to improve our tackling and I expect our guys will be tremendously better going from the first contest to the second. For a lot of guys, that was the first time they’ve seen live college looks.”
As for the key to the game, Harris stated the Jackets need to start fast and avoid falling in another massive hole.
“You take away half of the first quarter against SAGU and it’s a different ball game going into halftime,” Harris said. “We can’t sit back and be the guy responding to those things, we have to be the aggressor in those areas. We also have to be able to be great finishers through the fourth quarter.”