The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets showed the offensive improvement head coach Steve Fanara was hoping for, but not quite enough to end the team’s early season slump.

The Yellow Jackets rallied from 14 points down with their first two second-half touchdowns this season, but the Texas Lutheran Bulldogs still managed to spoil homecoming with a 28-21 victory Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium.

The loss was the third straight for Howard Payne (1-3, 0-2 in ASC), which has not won since it defeated Texas College, 20-13, at Gordon Wood Stadium in the season opener. Texas Lutheran (2-3, 1-2), meanwhile, earned its first conference victory and ended a three-game skid.

“We talked to the guys this week about improving, and we did,” said HPU first-year head coach Steve Fanara. “We improved, we just didn’t improve enough to win a ball game. We need to quit shooting ourselves in the foot and giving teams easy scores. We hurt ourselves early on, but I was proud of the way the kids came out of the locker room after halftime and got out there and scored. But you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get.”

The momentum swung heavily in Texas Lutheran’s favor late in the second quarter when the Bulldogs turned a pair of Howard Payne turnovers into touchdowns in a mere 16 seconds.

Tied at 7-all, the Yellow Jackets committed the second of their four turnovers when TLU’s Dantrelle Anderson forced a Cody McKenzie fumble that was recovered by Jack Moses at HPU 1.

Two plays later, Bulldog quarterback Joel Waldon scored on a 1-yard dive to push Texas Lutheran in front, 14-7, with 2:35 left in the first half.

On the ensuing kickoff, Yellow Jacket receiver Jared Shaw couldn’t get a clean handle on the ball. When he did, the pigskin was jarred loose by Cory Markham after a 5-yard return. The loose ball was recovered by TLU’s Dwight Bonner, and the Bulldogs were back in business at the Howard Payne 15.

It took only two more plays for the Bulldogs to build a 14-point cushion as Waldon connected with Steven Thrash on a 15-yard scoring toss to increase the lead to 21-7 with 2:19 left in the half.

“We got to where we were feeling like we were gaining some momentum and feeling confident, and then that strikes,” Fanara said. “Emotionally, it’s hard on you, but the true test of winners and champions is guys know how to handle those situations and how to come back from them. I’m proud of the way the guys were able to battle back.”

Howard Payne, which had not scored a point after halftime in its first four games, cut Texas Lutheran’s lead to 21-13 four seconds into the fourth quarter on an 18-yard scoring toss from Zach Hubbard to Tre Mason.

The six-play, 26-yard scoring drive was set up when Kevin Reyna forced a fumble by TLU running back Chris Freeman - one of two Bulldog turnovers - that was recovered by Aaron Alvarado.

After allowing six plays for only seven yards on TLU’s next possession, Howard Payne again took over and marched 74 yards in eight plays before Hubbard and Mason hooked up on a 24-yard touchdown pass.

Hubbard, who completed 20-of-36 passes for 186 yards with a pair of touchdowns and two interceptions, then found Trevor Kleine for the two-point conversion, which knotted the score at 21-all with 9:29 left in the game.

“Zach can get the job done,” Fanara said. “He’s got the skills and that’s why we’ve got him out there. The more snaps that Zach gets, the more comfortable he will get and the more his pocket presence will improve. Right now it’s still new to him and a lot of these guys. They need to gain experience, be put in situations and learn from them.”

Texas Lutheran answered Howard Payne’s tying march with a touchdown drive of its own. The Bulldogs covered 55 yards in six plays before Waldon and Thrash again connected on the decisive 9-yard touchdown pass with 6:21 left.

Waldon completed 14-of-26 passes for 247 yards with three touchdowns, while Thrash led all receivers with six catches for 50 yards.

The first Waldon touchdown toss resulted in the first points of the game as he hit Chris Freeman on a 92-yard catch and run at the 12:16 mark of the second period.

Howard Payne drew even at 7-all with 6:57 left in the first half on a 1-yard dive by Hubbard.

Defensively, the Yellow Jackets gave up 364 total yards, including 117 rushing - 107 of which belonged to TLU tailback Anthony Smith.

Howard Payne finished with just 237 yards of total offense and only 51 yards rushing on 27 attempts.

The Yellow Jackets will be back in action at 7 p.m. Saturday when they head to Abilene to face ASC rival McMurry (0-5, 0-3).