The 13-time defending American Southwest Conference champion and 2017 national runner Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders, ranked No. 2 in the nation in NCAA Division III football, invade Gordon Wood Stadium this weekend to clash with the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets.

Due to the threat of severe thunderstorms Saturdayafternoon, HPU announced late Thursday afernoon that the game has been moved to 5 p.m. Friday with the Brownwood Lions playing out of town. The Yellow Jackets (1-4, 1-3) have already played a 5 1/2- hour game this season due to weather — their lone win, 37-31 in double overtime over McMurry — and wanted to avoid another marathon contest.

“We’re supposed to have thunderstorms Saturday and rain is one thing, but thunderstorms are another. We’re looking at possibly moving it up earlier to make sure we can get it in,” HPU head coach Braxton Harris said during a Thursday morning interview. “We don’t want to have hours and hours of a lightning delay, that’s not good for anybody. Along with being a football coach, you have to be a meteorologist sometimes as well.”

The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 54-28 road loss at East Texas Baptist last week. While HPU struggled to get ETBU off the field and keep the Tigers out of the end zone, the offense did show signs of improvement with 396 total yards, including 117 on the ground.

“We came out slow early in the game, got down early, but then I think you saw some guys get comfortable in some situations,” Harris said. “They got into situations where they felt like they could compete and they did compete. Obviously, whenever you start off in a hole against a good football team it’s tough to dig your way out of it. And that’s a good team, not an average football team.

“Offensively we got back to running the football down hill and being able to move some people. Our running backs, Kaidrion Latson and Brett Martinez did a fantastic job of getting behind their pads, and the offensive line got a great push. Coach (Scott) Clough, the offensive line coach, said we were going to make sure we were going to knock some people off the ball and that’s what we got out of it. What that opens up is our skill guys and specialists on the outside who are able to make plays with the ball in their hands. I thought Gage (McClanahan) did a good job being able to distribute the ball. We threw the ball to the backs more than we ever have which is a great sign of maturity on his part.” 

Despite producing its lowest point total of the season last week, UMHB (5-0, 4-0) recorded its first shutout of the year against then-No. 6 Hardin-Simmons, 26-0. But the Crusaders have had no problem putting points on the board this season, opening with a 91-point performance against Albright en route to averaging 62 points per game. 

“They’re no different than any other year, they’re a great football program,” Harris said. “They do things the right way, they’re committed to being successful in football from top to bottom in the whole university. What I told the kids this week is we don’t have to beat a program, we just have to beat a team on Saturday. We have to find a way to compete on Saturday. Their kids are 18 to 22 years old just like our kids. We have a great amount of respect for that program and we want to strive to become that type of program. But we’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to be attacking and we’re going to go after them and give them our best shot.”

Along with its 62 points per game, UMHB is generating 549 yards — 282 rushing and 267 passing — with eight turnovers.

Markeith Miller leads the ground game with 589 yards and nine touchdowns, while Jase Hammack has completed 58 of 90 passes for 997 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Leading receivers include K.J. Miller (19-282, TD), T.J. Josey (14-273, TDs), Jonel Reed (13-277, 3 TDs), Aaron Sims (12-212, 2 TDs) and Demetrius Taylor (7-159, TD)

Defensively, UMHB is yielding just 7 points and 199 yards — 113 through the air and 86 on the ground — per game with 17 takeaways. No team has scored more than two touchdowns in a game against the Crusaders this season. 

Standouts include Raylon Hickey (28 tackles), Joey Longoria (26 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, FR), De Jackson (21 tackles), Jalen Martin (20 tackles, 1 INT), Santos Villarreal (17 tackles, 5 for loss, 1 INT, 1 FR), and Reginald Cole (16 tackles, 5 for loss, 1 INTs, 1 FR).

HPU counters with an offense that manufactures 20 points and 270 yards — 199 passing and 71 rushing — per game, with 11 turnovers.

McClanahan has completed 78 of 145 passes for 995 yards with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. Leading receivers include DunTayviun Gross (26-301, 3 TDs), Jordan Bryant (18-227, 2 TDs), Thomas Williams (9-199, 2 TDs), Tariq Gray (9-134) and Latson (9-69), while top rushers are Latson (262 yards, TD) and Martinez (140 yards).

On the defensive end, the Yellow Jackets allow 41 points and 521 yards — 289 through the air and 232 on the ground — on average, with nine takeaways.

Leading tacklers are Austin Killgore (54 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 1 sack), Britt Boler (41 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2 sacks), Tevin Dawson (29 tackles, 1.5 for loss), Elijah Washington (25 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 INT, 1 FR) and Collin Wright (23 tackles, 8 for loss, 3.5 sacks).

As for keeping the game close and giving themselves a chance to pull off an upset in the fourth quarter, Harris said, “First of all, we can’t turn the ball over and we have to get turnovers. If you get those that helps with some opportunities to swing the momentum a little bit. 

“Offensively, along with holding on to the football we have to have some sustained drives and take what they give us. They’re going to play a little bit softer coverage, keep everything in front of them and let their athletes run to the ball. We have to be OK with a check down to a running back or a short screen, anything like that to get our guys in space. 

“Defensively, we have to be able to stop the run. They run the football as good as any team in the nation, but we have to try and get them to throw the ball, but their guys on the perimeter are pretty good as well. I know this, if we don’t stop the run we’ll never see them throw the football. We have to stop the run and to do that we have to match their physicality.”