HPU targets second victory of season, Harris era

The most grueling portion of the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets’ schedule is behind them, with defending national champion Mary Hardin-Baylor and No. 5 Hardin-Simmons in the rearview window. With four games remaining in the season, first-year head coach Braxton Harris sees a golden opportunity for the Yellow Jackets to build positive momentum during the stretch run.

The first step on that path for Howard Payne (1-5, 1-4) occurs at 4 p.m. Saturday when the American Southwest Conference rival Sul Ross Lobos (3-3, 2-3) visit Gordon Wood Stadium for the Yellow Jackets’ homecoming game.

“What we’re trying to focus on this week is starting fresh, being in a four-game season and trying to be 1-0 this week,” Harris said. “The exciting thing is being able to move forward. This is an impressive group of kids, they’re resilient, they come in every Monday and believe in the process that we’re working through. They believe we have people in place that will be able to grow and build this program. As hard as these kids are working, they’re going to win football games and become champions and turn this program around because of who they are as people, and that’s probably the most exciting thing.”

Harris did reflect briefly on last week’s 65-0 loss at No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor.

“Mary Hardin-Baylor is the No. 1 team in the nation for a reason and I thought our kids played really hard against those guys,” Harris said. “When you take 48 freshmen and sophomores into that fight sometimes you wonder how they’re going to respond in that environment. I thought our kids competed very hard and we did some good things at times against those guys. Obviously there’s some disappointing things, like shooting ourselves in the foot on offense with some penalties that hurt us, and defensively we missed some opportunities to make plays when we were right there. You can’t make those mistakes against any football team, let alone the national champion. But that’s in the past, that’s behind us.”

After winning three of their first four games, Sul Ross is coming off back-to-back losses to Southwestern (29-27) and Hardin-Simmons (35-10).

The Lobos are averaging 27 points and 336 yards — 194 passing and 142 rushing — per outing, with seven turnovers. Defensively, Sul Ross is yielding 25 points and 369 yards — 189 through the air and 180 on the ground — with 13 takeaways, giving the Lobos a plus-6 turnover margin.

Quarterback James Davis has completed 83 of 160 passes for 1,129 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions, while rushing for 198 yards — second-most on the team — and a touchdown. Jordan Baston (238 yards, 2 TDs) is the top ground gainer while receiving threats include Byron Jones (22-413, 3 TDs), Steven Savedra (20-217, 3 TDs), Jeremy Reed (8-141, 3 TDs) and Baston (8-91, TD).

Defensively, Lobo standouts include Mike Quinonez (61 tackles, 2.5 for loss), Sakeithian Thomas (49 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, one interception, one fumble recovery), Job Mason (42 tackles, one interception) and Jacques Wisner (41 tackles, 5 for loss, 1 sack).

“Sul Ross is very athletic on offense, and their quarterback James Davis is a dual threat who can run the football and throw it across the field as well,” Harris said. “He’s dangerous and the guy on offense that we have to be able to contain and slow down. Byron Jones is the No. 1 receiver for them, their vertical threat. They make a dangerous combination and we’re going to have to do a great job of eliminating explosive plays.

“Defensively they’re no slouches by any means. They have guys that can really play athletic in space. They like to give you a couple of different looks on defense to try and disguise some things.”

Howard Payne heads into the contest averaging 18 points and 263 yards — 169 rushing and 94 passing — per outing, with 13 turnovers this season. The defense is surrendering 53 points and 484 yards — 288 passing and 196 rushing — with nine takeaways.

Offensively, Jaxson Durham (26 of 53 for 173 yards, 4 INTs), Mitchell Jennings (18 of 47 for 265 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) and Caisson Montieth (20 of 39 for 126 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) have split time behind center. The ground game is anchored by Hunter Batten (399 yards, 5 TDs) and Brett Martinez (245 yards, 2 TDs), while top receivers include Eric Haverstock (17-126), Tariq Gray (12-144, TD), Laston (11-59), Edwin Godfrey (6-146, 2 TDs), Justin Barrera (5-14), Chase Eisenmann (4-34) and Jordan Lewis (3-29).

Leading the charge on defense are Tevin Dawson (41 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack, one interception), Austin Kilgore (35 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack), Jake Wright (31 tackles, 5 for loss, 2.5 sacks), Colton Dickerson (23 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and Patrick Hunt (17 tackles, one for loss, 3 interceptions).

“When you’re putting something together you always talk about having the right guys on the bus, and we’ve got the pieces in the right place, the guys in the right seats,” Harris said. “I’m looking forward to seeing our kids respond in these next four weeks and improve offensively.We want to continue to improve our passing game, and we’re really excited about the run game that we’ve had. “Defensively, we have to be able to start giving teams different looks with pressure and coverage to continue to grow our defense these last four weeks. We’re focused on this one, trying to be 1-0 and what we’re working toward. We have great kids here that believe in what we’re doing and they’re excited about the future of Yellow Jacket football.”

As for playing in front of the homecoming crowd Saturday, Harris said, “ When you’re as young as we are I don’t know that they know what to expect. The majority of guys in this program, both players and coaches, have never seen a homecoming here at Howard Payne, so we’re excited and eager about seeing people come back and the love they have for the university and what a special place it is for them. For us, we want to go out there and make Yellow Jacket football something they can be proud of, something that they can come back at for homecoming and look forward to watching. It’s an opportunity for us to show a lot of people what we’re working to build with this program.”