“Something’s going to give.”
Those were the words of Howard Payne Yellow Jackets first-year head coach Steve Fanara, whose team will attempt to end a three-game losing streak at 7 p.m. Saturday when it visits winless McMurry in American Southwest Conference football action.
The Yellow Jackets (1-3, 0-2) have dropped three straight since an opening 20-13 home win over Texas College, while McMurry (0-5, 0-3) is winless in its five outings this season.
“They’re a little bit in the same boat we’re in in that they’re struggling to get points on the board,” Fanara said. “They’ve played Mary Hardin-Baylor and East Texas Baptist, some good teams, but they’re towards the bottom of the conference in scoring defense and offense, and we’re kind of right there with them. When you’ve got two teams struggling a little bit, something’s going to give.”
Despite suffering their third straight loss, the Yellow Jackets made strides in last week’s 28-21 home defeat at the hands of Texas Lutheran. Howard Payne rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit behind its first second-half points of the season, but could not come away with the victory.
“I was proud of our guys and the way they responded in the second half,” Fanara said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do all year. We were able to come out of the locker room and put some things together. The way those 14 points came so quickly right before the half, and for us to mentally be able to stay with it, stay with the plan and keep working, I was proud of the kids in that regard.”
A pair of HPU turnovers in a 16-second span led to two Texas Lutheran touchdowns in the final three minutes of the opening half. For the season, the Yellow Jackets have coughed up the ball 15 times - an average of 3.8 per contest - which is an area where Howard Payne must improve if it intends to continue making progress offensively.
“We’re minus six in the turnover margin right now and the conference leader is plus eight,” Fanara said. “That’s a huge difference in winning football games and not. To me, it’s matter of concentration. Sometimes you get hit hard and the ball is jarred loose, but it has to start with concentrating on protecting the football.
“We also can’t get into a desperation mode where we’re trying to force things. If a play is not there, we have to make the smart decision on where to go with the football so we don’t find ourselves turning the ball over again.”
Fanara and company feel good about the Yellow Jackets’ chances of having a breakout game offensively - if they can hang on to the pigskin.
McMurry ranks last in the American Southwest Conference with 38 points and 388.4 total yards allowed per game. Howard Payne, meanwhile, averages just 11.8 points - second worst in the ASC ahead of McMurry - and 230.3 total yards - dead last in the conference.
“We’re optimistic we can move the ball against these guys,” Fanara said. “With them struggling defensively, we’ve been telling the kids this thing is going to erupt, and this would be a great week for that to happen. They play an aggressive style of defense, and they‘ll be up in our face and running a lot of bump and run coverage. There’s big-play potential when teams do that, and we have to be able to capitalize.”
Quarterback Zach Hubbard leads the passing attack as he’s completed 68-of-133 passes for 623 yards with five touchdowns and eight interceptions. Meanwhile, Cody McKenzie continues to be the Yellow Jackets’ top rusher with 172 yards and a touchdown on 54 carries. HPU averages 155.8 yards passing and 74.5 yards rushing per outing.
Cody Hambrick leads all receivers with 16 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown, followed by Justin Havard (9-85, TD), Edward Cody (9-77) and McKenzie (9-62). Tre Mason has chipped in four receptions for 64 yards, and caught both HPU touchdown passes in the second half against Texas Lutheran.
“Tre Mason, he’s a newcomer to the program, and he shined last week with those two catches,” Fanara said. “We’ve got to have guys like that step up and make plays when they’re needed.”
On the other side of the ball, the stingy Yellow Jacket defense will face one of the most inconsistent offenses in the conference. Behind the play of Kevin Reyna (33 tackles, 4 for loss, 2.5 sacks), Dustin McClure (23 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks), Ronald Wright (22 tackles), Aaron Alvarado (21 tackles, 1 interception) and Demetrius Cody (20 tackles, 1 sack), the HPU defense still ranks second in the ASC in points all owed per game (17.8) and is third in yards allowed (292).
McMurry counters with a sputtering offense that has scored no more than seven points in any of its last three games and is averaging 9.8 points per game this season. McMurry is passing for 152 yards and rushing for 93.8 yards per outing.
Several players have had chances to leave a mark on the McMurry offense as four have thrown passes, while a dozen each have both rushed the ball and caught at least one pass.
Freshman Blaine Moore (19-of-36, 195 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) is expected to start at quarterback in place of the injured Taylor Penn.
Evan Heard leads the ground game with 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 79 carries, followed by Brandon Roberson’s 106 yards on 24 attempts.
Simeon Neal is the main receiving target with 22 catches for 394 yards and two touchdowns, followed next by Seth Waller (8-60, TD).
“It’s a different kind of offense in the fact that it’s a two-back shotgun, but it’s also a veer with some option involved,” Fanara said. “We’ll have to play a little more assignment football, which is different for us. We have to be careful we aren’t turning a guy loose on those responsibilities. Last week was the first time we’ve given up a big play all year, and we have to eliminate that.”
Fanara also believes the Yellow Jackets could gain the advantage in special teams, which could be important if Saturday’s game lives up the last three matchups between HPU and McMurry. The last three games in the series have been decided by a total of 16 points, with last year’s 10-point McMurry win being the largest margin of victory.
“They’re a team that’s hungry and when these two get together it’s usually a really tight ball game,” Fanara said. “We’re going to have to be ready for a four-quarter battle.”