With a win over American Southwest Conference powerhouse Hardin-Simmons to their credit, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets will attempt to wrap up the 2007 campaign with an even bigger upset — a victory over the No. 5 Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders.
Playoff-bound UMHB (8-1, 7-0) — which has already clinched the ASC championship — visits Howard Payne (1-8, 1-6) at 1 p.m. Saturday. On their last visit to Gordon Wood Stadium two years ago, the Crusaders were knocked off by the Yellow Jackets, 24-20.
Pulling off another unexpected victory would help soften the blow of an otherwise frustrating season for head coach Mike Redwine and the Yellow Jackets.
“Teams in our conference give special attention to their games against Hardin-Simmons and Mary Hardin-Baylor because those are the perennial playoff and championship contenders,” Redwine said. “This is our opportunity to prove that the losses don’t hold the true story of our season. It would be an important win, but the primary thing for us is to go out and compete hard for 60 minutes and see where we are after that.”
A victory Saturday would also be a nice send off for a class of seniors who were just sophomores when the Redwine era began at Howard Payne, and decided to stick around through the coaching change.
“These seniors have experienced just about all you can experience in football, from a nine-game win streak to a string of close losses that were as disappointing as any you can have in athletics,” Redwine said. “These guys were truly at the beginning of their careers when we arrived and because of that, it was easiest for them to transfer. But they believed in us, we believed in them and those guys have hung in there and stuck with us and provided outstanding leadership for our program.
“Their approach, attitude and work ethic, I didn’t see it change whether we were winning or we weren’t no matter who the opponent was. For that, I’m proud of this team and these seniors in particular.”
The Howard Payne seniors have something in common with those at UMHB as the two programs are the only ones to defeat every ASC opponent at least once in the past three seasons.
Upending Mary Hardin-Baylor this year, however, is possibly the toughest challenge the Yellow Jackets have faced since Redwine took over as head coach.
The Crusaders have marched through ASC competition with relative ease, winning all seven of their conference games by at least 34 points. Mary Hardin-Baylor has also scored no less than 47 points in any conference game this season.
Entering Saturday’s contest, UMHB is averaging 54.1 points and 516.1 total yards — including 359.8 yards rushing — per contest.
“Offensively, Mary Hardin-Baylor is much more difficult to defend now than two years ago or even last year,” Redwine said. “They have a senior quarterback in Josh Welch and they are allowing him to really look at what defenses are giving them and then check to more appropriate plays. Previously, they just broke the huddle, ran to the line of scrimmage and ran the play they called no matter what defense they were facing.”
While Welch has thrown for 1,049 yards and 12 touchdowns, the Crusaders are still very much a run-oriented offense.
Jarvis Thrasher has averaged 9.9 yards per carry and rushed for 1,316 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Quincy Daniels is averaging 7.9 yards per rush with 932 yards and 13 touchdowns. Thrasher’s longest run of the season has covered 94 yards, while Daniels has a 93-yard scamper.
UMHB has added 6-7, 210-pound receiver Patrick Oliver to the mix as well. Oliver has 26 of the Crusaders’ 80 receptions for 502 yards with nine touchdowns.
“They’ve been more of an option team in the past where you say you want to stop the run, but now they’ve recruited a big wide receiver off the basketball team,” Redwine said. “That creates a situation where you debate leaving the corner out there in one-on-one situations against him.”
Defensively, UMHB is allowing just 17.6 points per game and only one ASC opponent — Mississippi College — has scored more than 19 points against the Crusaders. UMHB is giving up just 274 total yards per game — including a mere 48.7 yards rushing — and has forced 36 turnovers.
Jerrell Freeman leads the Crusaders with 75 tackles and 14.5 tackles for loss, followed by 60 takedowns from Eric Henri. Chad Helton has tallied a team-high six sacks, while Derrick Williams has four of UMHB’s 21 interceptions.
“They are outstanding, especially in run defense,” Redwine said. “Last year we were able to make some adjustments against them, but it was really too little, too late.”
Howard Payne counters with an offensive attack that averages 28.4 points, 307.1 yards passing and 64.4 yards rushing per game.
Jason Lovvorn has completed 150-of-265 passes for 1,972 yards and 13 touchdowns. Jordan Beard leads the HPU receiving corps with 55 catches for 673 yards and five touchdowns, while Justin Havard has chipped in 29 catches for 340 yards and a score.
Zach Howard is the top rusher for the Yellow Jackets with 275 yards and six touchdowns, but he’s been a bigger threat as a receiver with 42 catches for 474 yards and three scores.
The HPU defense — led Mark Jimenez (62 tackles), Landon Dyer (50 tackles) and Andrew Hansen (47 tackles) — has given up 37.7 points and 402.1 yards per game.
Redwine expects UMHB’s high-powered offense to put pressure on both the Yellow Jacket offense and defense.
“With them not scoring less than 47 points in a conference game, that’s not only a challenge for our defense, but also our offense,” Redwine said. “We know when we have chances to score we need to make sure we do that to keep the game within one or two scores.”
Though the Crusaders have the conference championship sewn up, Redwine doesn’t expect UMHB to take its postseason tune-up game lightly.
“There are a lot of things still at stake for Mary Hardin-Baylor, such as its ranking, which could effect home field advantage in the playoffs,” Redwine said. “To think they’re going to come in and not play this game to win or rest their starters, I don’t think there’s a chance of that happening.”