The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets followed their best offensive showing of the season with their worst defensive performance last week, and now head coach Steve Fanara’s squad will head out of state in its attempt to get back on track.
The Yellow Jackets (2-4, 1-3) will try to put last week’s 60-13 drubbing at the hands of Hardin-Simmons behind them as they venture to Pineville, La. Saturday to face the Louisiana College Wildcats (3-3, 1-3), who snapped a three-game slide with a 27-20 road win over East Texas Baptist last week.
The kickoff has been moved from 4 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. as the lights at Louisiana College’s new stadium -which will host its first game Saturday - have malfunctioned. Wildcat Field is not yet complete as permanent bleachers and a press box are not in place, but school officials wanted to debut the new stadium during homecoming weekend.
“It’s basically going to be a turf field with goal posts, referees and players, but that’s all we need,” Fanara said.
For the Yellow Jackets, their on-field response following last week’s shellacking could determine the fate of the remainder of the season. Fanara stated after last week’s loss that he felt the team didn’t take the field against Hardin-Simmons with the right mindset.
“Adversity defines your character and our character is going to be defined this week,” Fanara said. “We’re going to find out what we’re really made of and we’ll see how we bounce back from last week’s defeat. Some teams’ greatest wins have come after a big defeat and that’s what I’m hoping for. I think we’re mentally prepared and we’ve had a good week of practice. We’ll have to see what kind of mental state we have coming out of the locker room.”
The main priority for the Yellow Jackets is to shore up a defense that started the season as one of the best in the American Southwest Conference, but was shredded for 692 total yards - including 499 yards on the ground - a week ago.
Howard Payne has given up more points each week since the conference opener against Sul Ross, a 17-0 loss. Over the last three games, the Jackets are allowing an average of 40 points and 458 yards of total offense per outing.
“It’s one of those things that is really unexplainable,” said Fanara of the Jackets’ defensive performance a week ago. “Our defensive unit really has played a lot better football than what they played Saturday. It was difficult to watch, but we’ve put it to rest and began working on Louisiana College. All you can try and do is learn from it, and there’s definite lessons that can be learned from it, but we want to put it behind us.”
Louisiana College bases out a spread offense, which could be good news for the Jackets. However, Wildcat quarterback Derek Lewis is coming off a 27-of-43, 382-yard, three-touchdown performance that earned him a spot on D3football.com’s Team of the Week.
For the season, Lewis has completed 142-of-243 passes for 1,568 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. Slot receivers Taylor Huffman (41-372, TD) and Jordan Rideaux (40-471, 5 TDs) are Lewis’ favorite targets, while Marcus Preston (25-279, 4 TDs) and Desmond Pittman (19-228, TD) also are dangerous weapons.
If the Wildcats opt to attack the Yellow Jackets on the ground, Detrick James will likely lead the charge as he’s rushed for 296 yards and three touchdowns on 66 carries.
“They’re another high-octane offense that’s able to rack up yardage in the air,” Fanara said. “They want to get it in the air and they do a good job with it. Lewis is second in the conference in passing to (Hardin-Simmons quarterback Justin) Feaster and most of their yardage is coming from the inside receivers. When they’re not throwing it, they like to spread you out, have you rush the passer and let Detrick run. Like Hardin-Simmons last week, this is a team that’s probably playing its best football.”
Fanara stated the Yellow Jackets have spent extra time on tackling during this week’s practices as Louisiana College will attempt to get their skill players in the open field.
“We’ve re-emphasized proper tackling form, getting a body on a body and not arm tackling,” Fanara said. “That’s going to be real important because they like to get their players in space. Tackling in close quarters with a spread offense doesn’t hurt you, it’s tackling in the open field.”
On the other side of the ball, the Howard Payne offense continues to improve. Following a season-high 45 points at McMurry, the Yellow Jackets tallied 376 yards of total offense against Hardin-Simmons, but scored on just half of their four trips inside the red zone.
“There were a lot of positives to take out of last week’s game,” said Fanara of the offense. “We were able to move the ball and a lot of different receivers caught the ball, so we spread it out pretty good. We were only 2-of-4 in the red zone, and we still have to do a better job of scoring when we get down there. We’d also like to establish the run a little more, but when you’re down 40 points it’s difficult to be patient.”
Howard Payne’s offense is led by quarterback Zach Hubbard (122-of-210 for 1,190 yards with 10 TDs and nine interceptions) and receivers Cody Hambrick (23-203, TD), Edward Cody (19-191), Tre Mason (16-259, 6 TDs), Corbin Young (11-68) and Justin Havard (10-92, TD). Cody McKenzie (63-186, TD) continues to lead the rushing attack. Louisiana College’s defense is allowing 27 points and 363 total yards per game, which means opportunities to score should be available to the Yellow Jackets if they can handle the Wildcats’ pressure.
“They run a three-man front that appears to be a 4-4, but they walk linebackers up on the line of scrimmage, so it’s actually a true three-man front,” Fanara said. “They run a little bit more man than we’ve seen and they like to blitz and bring pressure. Blitz protection and knowing where to go with the football have been our focal points on offense this week.”