With expectations of climbing the ladder in the American Southwest Conference football race, Saturday’s season opener is crucial for the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets, who are looking to establish positive momentum before league play begins.

The Yellow Jackets, who went 2-8 in head coach Steve Fanara’s first season in 2008, open their campaign at 6 p.m. Saturday against the Southwest Assemblies of God Lions at Waxahachie’s Lumpkins Stadium.

While the first two games of the Yellow Jackets’ season have no bearing on the ASC standings, Fanara believes they are equally as important for the program, which has won just three games over the past two seasons.

“Some coaches can down play it, but in my opinion this game is huge for us,” Fanara said. “For us to get started in non-conference play and come away with a win is going to do a lot for this team’s confidence and determination.

“The psyche of our team right now is still in that fragile state. You can talk about all the returners you want and everybody feels good right now, but we haven’t played a game yet. You get a win under your belt and that really affects the psyche, and we need that confidence boost. The kids have worked really hard, and as a coach I want nothing more than for them to see the fruits of their labor.”

The late start to the season has only increased the Yellow Jackets’ eagerness to step on the field. High school teams will have played their third game of the season before HPU suits up Saturday, which has made the wait even more excruciating.

“It’s a little strange to go out and watch high school football games for a couple weeks before you even play, but this is the last year in the cycle for us to be open the first week,” Fanara said. “It will get better in the future, but it’s tough because you can only pound on each other for so long before that gets a little old. We’re anxious to get back on the field. I know our guys are wanting to get out there and prove they can be successful. The time is here now.”

Howard Payne returns eight starters on each side of the ball, and are in the second year of Fanara’s system, which is why the Yellow Jackets expect to far exceed the preseason prediction of next-to-last place in the ASC coaches and media poll.

“We’ve gotten to a point where they expect for good things to happen,” Fanara said. “Before, there were a lot of unanswered questions and unknowns. This year we don’t have that as much. Our guys, with 14 seniors, they want this to be a successful campaign so they’ve placed high expectations on themselves. We don’t dwell on the preseason rankings, we’re just trying to focus on our team and the expectations we have for ourselves.”

Among the returnees for the Howard Payne offense are junior quarterback Zach Hubbard (161-of-289 for 1,587 yards with 12 TDs and 15 interceptions), and a veteran receiver corps consisting of reigning ASC Freshman of the Year Tre Mason (32-633, 9 TDs), along with seniors Edward Cody (30-249), Corbin Young (18-149) and Justin Havard (14-109, TD).

“There’s no reason why our receiving corps can’t be one of the best in the conference,” Fanara said. “They’ve all been through it, have the reps and have the game experience.”

The ground game is the greatest concern entering the season after rushing for just 70.5 yards per game last season. Sophomore Brandon Young has moved up from the JV squad and junior Walter Pam moves over from the secondary to handle the bulk of the rushing load.

“Both guys have done good things this preseason running football, and that’s been a big focal point,” Fanara said. “We want to be a more physical football team and we want to be able to establish the run, which we didn’t a year ago.”

The backs will run behind a revamped line that features newcomers David Cosper at tackle and Steffen McAfee at center — both freshmen — along with sophomore Ben Butler — a member of the baseball program last year — at guard. Returnees who have locked down a starting spot along the offensive line are sophomore John Bowman at tackle and senior James Freeman at guard.

“You’re always wanting to improve with newcomers, and if they are capable of stepping up and contributing that’s not a bad thing,” Fanara said. “But you don’t want to do it across the board.”

On the defensive side, junior Dustin McClure (54, five sacks) is moving to middle linebacker from the defensive line, while senior outside linebackers Kevin Reyna (80 tackles, three sacks) and Jake Dezell (70 tackles, five for loss, two interceptions) are also back. Sophomore Demetrius Cody (46 tackles, nine for loss), who was shifted to safety in the offseason, has been moved back to linebacker and will work into the rotation.

Along the front line, senior Chase Reneau (35 tackles, 6.5 for loss) is back at one defensive tackle, while junior Lorenzo Green (43 tackles, three for loss) moves from end to tackle. Sophomore Allen Dixon (24 tackles, five for loss) returns at the one end position, while former Bangs Dragon Joey Lewis, a sophomore who transferred from Cisco Junior College, will line up at the other end.

In the secondary, senior Aaron Martin (formerly Alvarado), who had 54 tackles and one interception, returns while sophomore Eric Bunch (51 tackles, two interceptions) moves from safety to cornerback. Zach Dauer, who was with the program in 2007 but not the 2008 season, will line up at one safety, while former Early Longhorn Jordan Pfenenger will play the other safety spot.

Another ex-Longhorn, Mitchell Bailey, is expected to handle the kicking chores while Cote Schacherl (38.4 yards per punt, 16 inside the 20) returns as the punter.

The HPU defense started the 2008 season well then faded, while the offense struggled to get its footing. An improved offensive performance out of the gate is one of the big keys for HPU Saturday, according to Fanara.

“Offensively, we have to get off to quick start,” said Fanara, whose team averaged just 14.7 points and 261.7 yards of total offense last season, while committing 29 turnovers. “Last year it took us a while, and we’re expecting for that to change. One of our goals is to score on the first possession of each half. I think that’s pretty important, especially the first game. If you can score on your first possession right out of the gate, that builds a lot of confidence.”

In SAGU’s season-opening 34-7 loss to Austin College last week, the Lions yielded 407 yards of total offense — 241 yards rushing on 42 carries and 166 passing yards — and did not force a turnover.

“We thought they would be more experienced on defense going into the season based on the literature we’d seen, but they have no seniors starting, a couple of freshmen and five sophomores,” Fanara said. “They do have two guys inside, one that’s 6-2, 300 lbs. and the other that’s 6-3, 330 lbs., but we’re going to be looking to establish the run.”

Offensively, the Lions ran for just 39 yards on 24 carries, but completed 22-of-37 passes for 200 yards. SAGU did have a pass intercepted and a fumble returned for a touchdown.

Jacob Davis rushed for 34 yards and a touchdown, which catching three passes for 45 yards. David Howard added a team-high six catches for 67 yards, while Calvin Tolbert completed 20-of-33 passes for 178 yards.

“They’ve got two seniors listed on the two-deep, and a couple of juniors, sophomores and freshmen, so they’re also inexperienced,” Fanara said. “They’re big up front, but they didn’t have a lot of success running the football. That’s something I would imagine they want to improve on.”

Since the teams are not that familiar with each other — SAGU is a member of the NAIA’s Central States Football League — Fanara stated Saturday’s game plan will be pretty vanilla, with the focus more on execution for the Yellow Jackets, opposed to disrupting the Lions.

“The game plan is probably going to be fairly generic,” Fanara said. “They’ve played a game and we haven’t, so that’s a little bit of a disadvantage because everybody knows about the big jump from the first game to the second typically. You always talk about special teams and penalties the first game, and after watching the first week of college football, if you aren’t sound in those areas that can get you beat. We’re going to focus on Howard Payne, and not let Howard Payne beat Howard Payne.”