Following a pair of setbacks on the road, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets are preparing for their 2017 home opener — and the first game at Gordon Wood Stadium for new head coach Braxton Harris — as the No. 7 Hardin-Simmons Cowboys come to town for an American Southwest Conference encounter.
Kickoff is at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re excited to be able to play at home,” Harris said. “We’re going to do some things at the stadium to make it a little more Howard Payne like, a little more blue and gold at the stadium. We’re thankful to Will Carrier and Willie’s T’s for helping us transform the stadium a little on game days.
“I’m also excited to see the community of Brownwood come out. They’ve been incredibly supportive and we’ve had great crowds at the last two away games. All the people at our games tells me they care about our players, our program and what the kids are buying in to and working toward. These guys are going to be champions and the neat thing is a lot of people in Brownwood have already begun supporting them in that process.”
Howard Payne (0-2, 0-1) has opened the season with losses to Southwestern Assemblies of God, 63-34, and McMurry, 33-21, in last week’s ASC opener. Hardin-Simmons (2-0, 1-0), meanwhile, has mauled Texas College, 74-0, and Louisiana College, 55-10, in its initial two outings of the season.
“Hardin-Simmons is a heck of a program and that’s what we talked about earlier in the week, this isn’t a team we’re playing, it’s a program,” Harris said. “For us, this is exactly what we’re trying to become. We want to build a program, not put a team together. The difference between our guys and their guys is about two years of playing experience.”
Slow starts have plagued the Yellow Jackets thus far as they have been outscored 41-0 in the first quarter by SAGU and McMurry.
“I’m absolutely disappointed in the first quarter and that’s something we have to improve,” Harris said. “We’ve lost the first quarter in both games, but if you take the second, third and fourth quarters we’ve won those. If you look at the simple math we have to find a way to keep the first quarter close.”
As for correcting the slow starts, Harris said, “I think part of it is our immaturity as a football team. We have to continue to grow as a football team. It seems like from my standpoint kids get in the game and figure out where they fit in and then they go play. We have to continue to coach our kids to be able to play hard and come out and play fast early in the ball game. That’s something we’re working to be able to do. If we can put two groups on the field that are consistent from one week to the next week, that will help the process as well.”
The Yellow Jackets finished strong in each outing, however, including outscoring McMurry, 21-6, in the second half last week. Freshman quarterback Mitchell Jennings led Howard Payne to three touchdowns on its final three possessions, and will see considerably more playing time as the season moves forward.
“We were down 27-0 at halftime and came back and won the second half, 21-6,” Harris said. “To hold them completely out of the end zone is a really big deal.
“And anytime a kid can come in and take you to three scores in three series, that’s exactly what we’re looking for. The quarterback position is more than just stats on a sheet of paper. I think it’s how your teammates respond and what you give to the football team as a whole, and I thought Mitchell did a great job with those things. That’s a role he’s going to continue to grow in and we’re excited to see him progress and move forward.”
As for the challenge the Cowboys present, Hardin-Simmons is averaging 64.5 points and 638.5 yards — 348 passing and 290.5 rushing — per outing.
Quarterback Landry Turner, from Graham, has completed 33 of 43 passes for 629 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions, while Coleman grad Jaquan Hemphill leads the ground game with 239 yards and a pair of scores. Leading receivers include Alex Bell (12-149, 2 TDs), Reese Childress (7-148, 3 TDs), Hemphill (7-56, TD), Devonte Walker (5-204, 2 TDs), Colton Kent (3-71, TD), and Matt Sandoval (2-59, TD).
Howard Payne counters with a defense allowing 48 points and 448 yards — 229 passing and 219 rushing — per game. Standouts thus far include Colton Dickerson (14 tackles, half a sack), Tevin Dawson (14 tackles, one forced fumble), Austin Kilgore (11 tackles, half a sack), Zachary Eskridge (eight tackles), Jaylon Jeffery (five tackles, three for loss, two sacks), Patrick Hunt (five tackles, one for loss, one interception) and Brady Wade (four tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery).
“Things we’ll try and do to be able to slow them down the best we can is to give them some different looks,” Harris said. “Our kids have to understand this is a great opportunity to see where we can win some one on one match-ups. It’s a chance for us to grow and improve, but we also have to be able to get after them. The kids can’t get consumed by the big picture. They need to focus on the guy in front of them and being able to win that matchup.”
On the flip side of the ball, Hardin-Simmons is yielding just 5 points and 217.5 yards — 152 through the air and 65.5 on the ground — with three takeaways.
Leading the charge for the Cowboys are Josh White (21 tackles, 1.5 for loss), Eriq Mitchell (nine tackles), Matthew Hawkins (nine tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack) and Chris Miller (eight tackles, one interception).
The Howard Payne offense, which averages 27.5 points per game, has relied heavily on the run game with 234 of its 346.5 yards per game coming on the ground.
Hunter Batten has rushed for 161 yards and two touchdowns joined by Caisson Montieth with 110 yards and a score, Kaidrion Laston with 63 yards and two trips to the end zone and Jennings with 41 yards.
Through the air, Montieth is 20 of 39 for 127 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions while Jennings is 8 of 11 for 98 yards. Top receiving threats include Tariq Gray (9-95, TD), Eric Haverstock (9-92), Justin Barrera (4-4) and Jordan Lewis (2-25).
Regarding the biggest keys in all three phases of the game for HPU, Harris said, “Offensively we have to be able to move the football and finish drives. We weren’t able to do that in the McMurry game. We started off moving the ball well then we stalled. We have to finish when we have opportunities.
“Defensively, we can’t give them first downs. Last week we gave up three first down scrambles on third and long situations. We want to get them in those third and long situations, but we can’t allow them to get out of those.
“And special teams need to make a difference in this game. Last week I felt like it was a wash. We have to have difference makers and our returners have to be able to gain some yardage, and we have the ability to do that.”