Howard Payne first-year head coach Braxton Harris will face his former team at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium as the Yellow Jackets target their second victory of the season — and first home win since Halloween 2015 — as the Texas Lutheran Bulldogs come to town.
“There’s a lot of kids there that I recruited and built relationships with who are great kids, and there’s some players that played for me at TLU who have graduated that are coming in for the game to see me, and that’s exciting,” said Harris, who served as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at TLU for three season before arriving at Howard Payne. “One of the things about coaching that’s really different from probably any other profession is those relationships are always going to be there. It’s always good to see people that you love and care about, but once the game starts we’re going to do everything in our power to win the football game. I know who those guys are, I know how they play the game which is fast and physical. They’re well-coached and do things the right way over there.”
The Yellow Jackets (1-6, 1-5) are coming off a 52-15 homecoming loss to Sul Ross, a game Howard Payne trailed in by a 14-6 count at halftime.
“I thought we could have managed our time a little better at the end of the first half and hopefully if you get in right there it’s 14-10 going into halftime with one of their scores being an explosive play blew that we just blew defensively,” Harris said. “I felt like we were in a good place at halftime, we were in the ball game but hadn’t played our best football. I thought if we came out in the second half and didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot we had a great opportunity to win the game. But in the second half we didn’t do that, we didn’t come out and play well. The kids didn’t come out and respond, we allowed big plays to happen and had missed opportunities to get in the end zone. It was probably one of the most disappointing games we’ve had all year because the opponent didn’t necessarily beat us, we just beat ourselves. We didn’t give ourselves an opportunity and that was the disappointing thing to see. The encouraging thing to see is we were able to compete against Sul Ross, who is probably a 6-4 type team. We have the kids as freshmen and sophomores to be able to compete with those guys.”
Despite the loss, the Yellow Jackets generated a season-high 413 yards of total offense, including 350 rushing with 211 coming from Hunter Batten.
“I thought our offensive line did a good job and was really physical,” Harris said. “We talk a lot about the youth of this team but Cyle Johnson is a senior who’s bought in to what we’re dong here and played a heck of a football game. Robert Evans, Abraham Centeno, Travis Folmar, Marcus Cortez and Brian Prickett are also in the mix, and those guys did a phenomenal job and have gotten better every single week. In our offense we’ve had struggles, but those guys have risen to the challenge.
“Then Hunter Batten, our freshman running back, ran well and ended up with 211 yards on the day. He’s gotten so much better at getting behind his pads and believing in the hole, not having to see it open. To me that’s the biggest transition for a back. To be able to know where the hole’s going to be, where it’s going to open up, and not have to see it open and then go through it.”
Texas Lutheran (4-3, 4-2) is coming off a 33-30 loss to No. 5 Hardin-Simmons last week after winning three games in a row.
The Bulldogs are averaging 32 points and 427 yards — 245 rushing and 182 passing — per game, but have committed 20 turnovers thus far.
Quarterback Kyle Grona leads TLU in both passing (1,162 yards, 8 TDs, 8 INTs) and rushing (506 yards, 9 TDs), while other threats include receivers Jekovan Holmes (21-185, 2 TDs), Logan Thompson (20-269, 2 TDs), C.J. Romero (14-227, 2 TDs), Pearce Loth (13-114, TD) and J.B. Brown (12-190, TD), along with Ian Leslia (304 yards, 3 TDs), Chris Monroe (287 yards, 4 TDs), Jordan Braden (266 yards, TD) and J.C. Garcia (237 yards, 2 TDs) out of the backfield.
“Offensively, their quarterback Kyle Grona is a heck of a football player,” Harris said. “He ran scout team quarterback for me as a freshman and he can run the huddle. He had ‘it,’ people following him, people believing in him, he’s a competitor. For us, being able to stop him is the biggest piece of the puzzle. He’s their leading rusher and has also thrown for over 1,000 yards. He’s got some really good guys around him, but they’re a run first football team. We didn’t do very well last week against the run so that’s a huge challenge for us this week.”
Howard Payne counters with a defense allowing 53 points and 489 yards — 277 passing and 212 rushing — with nine takeaways.
Standouts include Tevin Dawson (47 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack, one interception), Austin Kilgore (43 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack), Jake Wright (38 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks), Colton Dickerson (26 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and Patrick Hunt (22 tackles, one for loss, three interceptions).
The Yellow Jacket offense, meanwhile, produces 18 points and 285 yards — 195 on the ground and 90 through the air — with 14 turnovers.
Batten (610 yards, 5 TDs) leads the rushing attack along with Brett Martinez (245 yards, 2 TDs) and LeMarcus Harmon (118 yards, TD), while quarterback Mitchell Jennings has completed 27 of 72 passes for 328 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Receiving threats include Eric Haverstock (21-166), Kaidrion Laston (14-62), Tariq Gray (12-144, TD), Edwin Godfrey (8-166, 2 TDs), Justin Barrera (5-14), Chase Eisenmann (4-34) and Jordan Lewis (3-29).
The TLU defense is yielding 29 points and 403 yards — 335 passing and only 68 rushing — with 12 turnovers forced.
Leading tacklers include Emory Cuzze (48 tackles, 3 for loss, 1.5 sacks), Adairius Norwood (41 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, one interception), James Bell (36 tackles, four interceptions) and Kedrick Ward (32 tackles, one interception).
“Defensively, they’re very athletic and have moved to a three-man front,” Harris said. “There are guys there familiar to me, but in different places on the football field. Their defense is based around speed, guys that can run, and they’re in the right places. We have to be able to take advantage on the perimeter when they tighten guys into the box. They’ve seen our film and saw us rush for over 300 yards last week, so in their minds they know they have to stop the run. When they tighten down we’ll move some guys into other positions so that hopefully we can stretch the field and get the ball in space to some guys with speed.”