With the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets’ hopes of competing for the American Southwest Conference championship dashed, the focus for the final three games of the season has shifted to establishing positive momentum for the 2009 campaign.
The Yellow Jackets’ (2-5, 1-4) first attempt at building a foundation to carry over into next season comes at 1 p.m. Saturday when the Mississippi College Choctaws (2-5, 2-3) visit Gordon Wood Stadium.
“We’re at a juncture in the program right now where we are leaning on this group of guys to get this turned in the right direction,” said Howard Payne first-year head coach Steve Fanara. “At some point on this journey we have to make a turn. Rather than call it quits for the last three games of the season, I want them to approach it like it’s the first game of 2009.
“I want to see if we can do enough things offensively and defensively to make a turn in the right direction. I just want us to play up to our physical potential and if we walk away knowing we did that, that’s a huge plus for the program.”
HPU has developed a troubling trend this season where the offense and defense have failed to work in sync. Either the Jackets have solid offensive outings and struggle on defense, or the defense keeps Howard Payne close but the offense can’t generate enough points for a victory.
In last week’s 39-7 loss at Louisiana College, the Jackets trailed just 10-0 at halftime, but the offense did not produce any points until the fourth quarter. The week prior in a 60-13 loss to Hardin-Simmons, the Yellow Jackets finished with a season-high 376 yards of total offense, but the defense surrendered 692.
“If we could ever combine the two we could get us a win,” Fanara said. “We have to match the two up this week.
“Even though we weren’t moving the ball real well in the first half last week, we felt pretty good about where we were, down just 10 at halftime, because Louisiana College has a pretty potent offense. The down side was in the second half our defensive guys just got tired. When you have players taking that many snaps, it wears them down, and we’re not real deep.”
While Mississippi College owns the same overall record as the Yellow Jackets, the Choctaws’ schedule has been considerably tougher. Among the teams to defeat Mississippi College are No. 5 Millsaps (7-0), No. 8 Mary Hardin-Baylor (6-1), No. 12 Hardin-Simmons (7-1) and NAIA No. 12 Cumberlands (6-1).
Mississippi College also suffered a 24-21 home conference loss to East Texas Baptist last week, which HPU will host in the season finale Nov. 15. The Choctaws’ two victories have come against Louisiana College (21-19) and McMurry (44-7).
“If you just look at their record you see they are 2-5, but you have to look at who they played,” Fanara said. “They played Hardin-Simmons within eight points and they took the first drive of the game against Mary Hardin-Baylor down the field but shot themselves in the foot. That’s another game they had every opportunity to be in. They lost last week to ETBU, but it was still another close game.”
The Choctaws enter Saturday’s contest averaging 23 points and 376 yards of total offense per outing, while surrendering 29 points and 383 yards.
Freshman quarterback Tommy Reyer has taken over the offense after starter Adam Shaffer suffered an injury. Reyer has completed 64-of-116 passes for 878 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Jeremy Packer (28-256, TD) leads Mississippi College in receptions, Brian Richardson (24-260, 2 TDs) has the team lead in receiving yards and tight end Renard Ellis (15-229, 3 TDs) has the most receiving touchdowns.
Desmond Mays spearheads the Choctaw ground game with 746 yards and eight touchdowns, and he’s also added 21 catches for 154 yards.
“Mays is the key,” Fanara said. “We have to limit his yards and put their freshman quarterback in a situation where he has to make some plays. “They’ve matched what he can bring to the table with what they do offensively. Their passing game is always solid, but they’re also running some option and some read plays with him.”
In charge of slowing down the Choctaws is a Howard Payne defense led by linebackers Kevin Reyna (60 tackles, three sacks) and Jake Dezell (41 tackles, five for loss), along with safety B.K. Medlock (41 tackles, two interceptions, fumble recovery).
After being among the conference leaders early in the season defensively, the Yellow Jackets have allowed 1,206 yards of total offense the last two weeks - an average of 603 yards per game.
Offensively, Howard Payne will attempt to rebound after being held under 10 points for the third time in seven games, but just the first time in the last four.
The Yellow Jackets finished with only 133 yards of total offense at Louisiana College. Howard Payne running backs Marcus Ennis and Jeffery Jefferson combined for 87 yards on the ground, but that number was wiped out due to seven sacks of quarterback Zach Hubbard.
The offense is averaging just 269 yards of total offense per game, with only 77 coming on the ground. Cody McKenzie continues to be the only Yellow Jacket with more than 100 yards rushing this season as he has picked up 190 yards and a touchdown on 64 carries.
Hubbard has completed 135-of-239 passes for 1,323 yards with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Cody Hambrick leads HPU with 23 catches for 508 yards and a touchdown, followed by 22 catches for 214 yards from Edward Cody and 20 catches for 336 yards and a team-high six touchdowns by Tre Mason.
“They run a 3-3-5 and they’re going to be bringing pressure from a lot of different places,” Fanara said. “They get after it and they’re a high pressure type of defense. They’ve made some big plays, but they’ve given up some big plays and yardage. They’re a gambling type of defense that at times will rush three and at other times they’ll bring six or seven. We have to be solid in our protections and that’s a little scary coming off last week when we gave up seven sacks.”