The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets are off to a 1-0 start in American Southwest Conference football action for the first time since 2014 following their first home win since Halloween 2015 — a 37-31 double-overtime triumph over McMurry last week that included a 2 1/2-hour lightning delay.
The road to a 2-0 league start takes the Yellow Jackets (1-1, 1-0) to Abilene at 6 p.m. Saturday where they challenge the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys (2-0, 1-0), who are ranked No. 6 in the most recent AFCA Division III poll which was released Wednesday.
“Any time you win a college football game it’s a big deal,” said HPU second-year head coach Braxton Harris, who picked up his second win at the school. “The exciting thing for our kids is they’re able to see the processes are working and the processes are able to produce the results we want them to. We’ve talked about it after losses, but it’s no different after wins, you have to believe in the process and love the process even more. Winning a football game is not all we want to do, we want to build a program and to do that we have to be able to compete against people like Hardin-Simmons. They’re the No. 6 team in the nation and we want to grow and build to that, and to do that we have to be able to get better every single week. So this week is no different than last week or next week. “
Looking back on last week’s win over McMurry, the Yellow Jackets generated 411 yards of total offense — 265 through the air and 146 on the ground. Quarterback Gage McClanahan accounted for five touchdowns — four passing and one rushing — while Kaidrion Latson amassed 126 yards on the ground.
“Gage threw for four touchdowns, so that was exciting to see,” Harris said. “We always felt like during fall camp our offense was going to be very dynamic and explosive. It was good to see those things happen with young receivers making plays — Thomas Williams, Jordan Bryant and DonTayviun Gross. Those guys are making big catches, dynamic catches that make it very difficult for a defense to defend.
“On the other hand, I’d like to see us start faster in some spots offensively, come out of the gate shooting and be able to move the football down the field and do those things early in a ball game.”
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets surrendered 436 total yards, but just 61 of those came on the ground. Howard Payne also intercepted two passes — one each by Elijah Washington and Dylan Zeno — and recorded four sacks, led by ASC Defensive Player of the Week Collin Wright’s 1.5 sacks. Wright finished with 11 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss from his spot on the defensive line.
“We only gave up 61 yards rushing so we’re really pleased with that,” Harris said. “But we gave up more than 200 in the air with three of those coming on big plays, and we have to eliminate those.
“The exciting thing was our guys were able to keep fighting and battling and giving us an opportunity to win a ball game. The thing that we have to get better at is we have to learn how to win a football game. There were plenty of opportunities Saturday night to be able to put McMurry away and finish things, and we weren’t able to take that step to finish things and get over the hump and get a two-score lead that would have allowed us to win the football game in regulation. Those are things as a young, growing program that we have to learn. Some of the other teams we have coming up on our schedule, you don’t want to give them an opportunity to get back in a football game.”
Hardin-Simmons (2-0, 1-0) enters the contest with victories over Trinity, 42-33, and Louisiana College, 57-21.
“They’re a typical Hardin-Simmons team. I’ve played them my whole coaching career and they are who they always are — a well-coached, physical football team that’s got dynamic players on the perimeter both offensively and defensively,” Harris said. “They’re not going to beat themselves, they’re going to wait for you to mess up and then they’re going to take advantage of it. They’re No. 6 in the nation for a reason, and it’s a great opportunity for our guys to go see what the No. 6 team in the nation looks like and see if we’re further along than we were a year ago at this time.
“The thing we want to do is be able to compete and throw our chips on the table and see where they land. If you play the game, you want to play the best. You want to see where you’re at, see where you’re going and then continue to move forward.”
The Cowboys are averaging 50 points and 571 yards — 389 rushing and 182 passing — per game, with three turnovers. Hardin-Simmons has used Marc Reed (18 of 28 for 192 yards, 3 TDs) and Ty Hooper (11 of 14 for 153 yards, 1 TD) at quarterback, while Coleman product Jaquan Hemphill (408 yards, 5 TDs) anchors the ground game and Reese Childress (12-105, 3 TDs) leads the receiving corps.
Other players to watch out of the backfield include Reed (137 yards, 1 TD), Zai Zai Smith (94 yards, 1 TD) and Johnny Morales (82 yards, 1 TD), while potential receiving threats include Bryson Hammonds (3-74, 1 TD), Matthew Sandoval (3-54, TD) and Jaxson Money (3-51).
Howard Payne counters with a defense that is yielding 33 points and 404 yards — 269 passing and 135 rushing — per outing, with three takeaways.
Standouts include Austin Kilgore (23 tackles, 1 for loss), Wright (18 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks), Britt Boler (17 tackles, 2.5 TFL), Tevin Dawson (13 tackles), Juan Luna (12 tackles, 1 for loss) and Brady Wade (10 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 1 sack).
“Defensively, we have to be able to stop the run,” Harris said. “Hemphill, their running back, is the best in the conference. If you don’t contain him it’s going to be a long night and they’re not even going to start throwing the ball. Once you do stop the run, then you have to transition to playing good pass defense. Childress, their receiver, is one of the best in the conference with the ball in his hands.”
On the flip side of the ball, the Yellow Jackets are generating 20 points and 272 yards — 186 through the air and 86 on the ground — with six turnovers.
McClanahan has completed 31 of 58 passes for 372 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions, while leading receivers include Gross (10-147, TD), Bryant (9-54, TD) and Williams (5-98, 2 TDs). Latson (131 yards) and Brett Martinez (51 yards) are the top ground gainers.
The Hardin-Simmons defense is surrendering 27 points and 286 yards — 193 through the air and 93 on the ground — per outing.
Leading tacklers include Eriq Mitchell (14 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 INT), Chris Miller (11 tackles, 1 for loss), Kyle Zavala (9 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and Kelton McGee (8 tackles, 2 for loss).
“The biggest key is running the football offensively against a really good defensive line against Hardin-Simmons, and then being able to convert plays that we need to make,” Harris said. “We have to get manageable third downs. Last week we had 11 first downs that came after third and long. We can’t win a football game against the No. 6 team in the nation if we have 11 third and longs.”