The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets persevered and came away with a season-opening victory last weekend. On Saturday, the Jackets (1-0) will target their first win streak since 2006 when the Bacone Warriors (0-1) visit in the 1 p.m. home opener at Gordon Wood Stadium.
The last back-to-back victories for Howard Payne occurred in the eighth and ninth games of the 2006 campaign — a 47-45 road win at Louisiana College followed by a 30-15 home triumph over Mississippi College.
The Yellow Jackets topped Southwest Assemblies of God, 23-17, in Waxahachie this past Saturday, rallying from a 10-point first-quarter deficit before clinging to the win late after SAGU trimmed a 13-point deficit to the final six-point margin.
“I’m proud of the way the guys were patient and finished the game,” said HPU second-year head coach Steve Fanara. “Winners find a way to win, regardless of what it looks like or what happens during the course of a game. There’s always going to be adversity, particularly in the first game.”
Aside from two botched snaps on punts that resulted in SAGU’s first 10 points, the Yellow Jackets special teams played a prominent role in the victory. Mitchell Bailey converted three field goals, while punt returner Edward Cody averaged 15.5 yards per return and kick returner Brandon Young averaged 37.8 yards, with one return of 88 yards.
“The effort we put forth on special teams can win a lot of ball games,” Fanara said. “Going into the game we were unsure of our kick coverage because we hadn’t seen it before, but I thought the guys did well. I was pleased with the way Mitchell Bailey responded to his first start. He made some field goals in some tough weather conditions and he settled in on kickoffs.
“We also haven’t seen those kind of kick returns around here for a while. Brandon Young and Edward Cody both did a great job. Other than the bad snaps, we achieved all five of our special forces goals.”
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets yielded just 112 yards of total offense — 79 passing and 33 rushing — against SAGU. Aaron Martin intercepted a pass, while Kevin Reyna led the charge with 11 tackles. Dustin McClure added seven takedowns, while Joey Lewis, Allen Dixon and Jordan Pfenenger finished with five tackles each. Lewis also had a team-high 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss, while half of Demetrius Cody’s four tackles resulted in negative yardage as well.
“I thought our defense was outstanding,” Fanara said. “Our backs were against the wall early in the game and we gave up a field goal on the first possession and a touchdown on the second. Outside of that, if you look at what SAGU did they only had one surmountable drive and that was just on one half of the field. I was proud of our front guys and linebacker corps for being able to shut down the run and get us the ball back.”
Among the offensive highlights for HPU, Tre Mason caught six passes for 141 yards with a 65-yard touchdown and also rushed for a 15-yard score, which earned him ASC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Zach Hubbard completed 24-of-42 passes for 261 yards, and though the Yellow Jacket run game finished with just 39 yards, that number is deceiving.
HPU actually gained 145 yards on the ground, but lost a total of 106 on three errant snaps — including the two punts. Young finished with 35 yards, Mason ran for 29, Walter Pam chipped in 24 and Hubbard tallied 13 yards on the ground.
“Number-wise it wasn’t great, but if you go and look at some of our series we were able to sustain drives and control the clock a little bit with the run game,” Fanara said. “That helped our defense, but we still need to continue to improve.”
The Yellow Jackets will continue to stress the run game against Bacone’s 3-3-5 defense, while the vertical passing attack may come into play more due to the Warriors’ alignment.
“The 3-3-5 is a little different look than what we get in this conference and it takes some adjusting to get used to,” Fanara said. “The linebackers are pretty active and fly around, and they’re going to try and take away our underneath passing game, so we have to be able to run the ball against their defense. They are big up front, but not as big as what we saw last week. They also play a cover one or cover three with one safety, so we’ll have to take advantage of that when we can with the vertical passing game.”
Against Louisiana College, Bacone’s offense was led by running back JaMario Thomas, who rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries. The Warriors used two quarterbacks — Spencer Johnson (6-18-2-81, one TD) and Shawn Walls (5-13-2-33; 10 yards rushing, one TD) — and Walls, a freshman, is listed as the starter heading into Saturday’s game.
“They average 305 lbs. up front, so they are going to want to establish the run game,” Fanara said. “Thomas has some talent and had a 67-yard run against Louisiana College, so he’s capable of breaking away. We want to be able to stop the run and force them into some passing situations with a freshman quarterback back there. He’s probably not that comfortable back there yet, so it’s important that we do that.”
If Howard Payne is able build a lead as it did against SAGU, Fanara wants to see the Yellow Jackets put the game out of reach and not be in a situation where they again are hanging on by a thread in the final moments.
“We can’t ever relax, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Fanara said. “We got up 23-10 last week and needed to put the dagger in and get the thing finished and we didn’t do that. Bacone isn’t going to come in here and lay down.”
Bacone defeated the Yellow Jackets, 13-6, in Muskogee, Okla. last season.