The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets return to the site of their lone victory this season with goals of snapping their two-game skid and earning their first American Southwest Conference win as the Texas Lutheran Bulldogs visit for homecoming.
Kickoff for Saturday’s ASC contest between the Yellow Jackets (1-2, 0-1) and Bulldogs (1-3, 0-2) is slated for 2 p.m. at Gordon Wood Stadium.
The Yellow Jackets carry the ASC’s second-best scoring defense (14.3 ppg) into the contest, but Howard Payne’s offense ranks dead last in points (8.4 per game) and total yardage (228 per game) among conference programs.
HPU suffered a 17-0 loss at Sul Ross last week in the ASC opener, which marked the first time the Yellow Jackets have been shut out since the 2003 season opener. Howard Payne also was plagued by six turnovers. Still, first-year head coach Steve Fanara anticipates the offense will soon find itself.
“I’m not going to say there isn’t a little bit of pressure on the offense to get something generated, but we’re keeping a positive approach,” Fanara said. “We’re still very optimistic that we’re going to get the job done. It’s still in the early stages of the season, and with each week we have to continue to improve.
“The biggest issue is we’re just not in sync yet. Stringing together a series of plays has been a big issue. We’ll have a play here or there, but then we’ll have a setback.”
The Yellow Jackets’ inconsistency on offense also has resulted in just two point-producing drives in seven trips inside the red zone, no conversions on six fourth down attempts, and only a 32 percent conversion rate on third downs.
“What hurts us there is you have to be in manageable downs,” Fanara said. “We have to get positive yards on first down so second and third downs are manageable, and right now we’re not in that mode yet. We could open up the playbook more if they were manageable situations, but when you’re always in third and long you limit yourself.”
Howard Payne - which also has turned the ball over 11 times and is averaging a league-worst 10 penalties per game through its first three - averages just 82.3 yards rushing and 145.7 yards passing per contest.
Cody McKenzie leads all Yellow Jacket rushers with 171 yards and a touchdown on 42 carries. No other Yellow Jacket has rushed for more than 37 yards.
Zach Hubbard spearheads the passing attack as he has completed 48-of-97 passes for 437 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions.
Leading receivers include Cody Hambrick (13-108, TD), Justin Havard (7-62, TD), McKenzie (7-52), Jared Shaw (4-65) and Trevor Brown (4-39, TD).
Statistically, the Texas Lutheran defense looks vulnerable as the Bulldogs are allowing 35 points and 415.5 total yards - including 259.8 yards rushing - per game. Fanara is not taking the Bulldog defense lightly, however, as he attributed some of TLU’s defensive struggles to having played No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor (63-7 loss) and No. 22 Trinity (24-0 loss).
“This is a team that is much better than the stats or record show because of who they played,” Fanara said. “They’ve played two top 25 teams, and three pretty good teams, and that’s going to skew a lot of things. East Texas Baptist (a 26-14 winner over TLU last week) is a team in the conference that is doing the right things and making the right moves.”
Fanara stated the biggest key for the HPU offense will be getting off to a fast start. Of the 26 points the Yellow Jackets have scored, 20 came in the first half of their home opener against Texas College. Fanara also would like to see Howard Payne put points on the board after halftime, which would be a first this season.
“It’s important for us to score early to gain a little confidence and momentum,” Fanara said. “We also have to score some points in the second half. That’s real important. There’s a reason they have four quarters, and we have to come out after halftime and generate some offense.”
Defensively, Fanara would be pleased if the Yellow Jackets maintained the status quo. Along with allowing an average of just over two touchdowns per game, Howard Payne gives up only 268 total yards - 158 passing and 110 rushing - and has forced seven turnovers.
Kevin Reyna leads Howard Payne with 24 tackles, including three for loss, followed by Dustin McClure (19 tackles, 2.5 sacks), Conner Julian (16 tackles, interception), Eric Bunch (16 tackles, interception), Chase Reneau (14 tackles, four for loss, sack) and Jake Dezell (14 tackles, 3.5 for loss).
“The defense is giving up 14.3 points per game, which is second in the conference, and if you can be in the top two or three statistically in the conference, then you’re doing something right,” Fanara said. “They need to continue to play well, and if we can get some points on the board, it will all work out.
“You don’t want to put too much pressure on one side of the ball. It’s a package deal and the offense, defense and special teams have to work together. It’s evident one group can’t carry you, so we have to have all three cylinders firing.”
The Texas Lutheran offense - which averages 13.8 points, 156 passing yards, 126.2 rushing yards and has turned the ball over just four times - is led by quarterback Joel Waldon (58-of-107, 575 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs).
Leading receivers for the Bulldogs are Kash Greathouse (22-252) and Steven Thrash (18-223, 2 TDs), but their biggest weapon is running back Anthony Smith (67-306, 2 TDs), who ranks third in the ASC in all-purpose yardage.
“We have to stop Anthony Smith and get them more in a passing mode,” Fanara said. “The more carries Smith gets, the better he gets. We have to limit his touches and put pressure on their passing game.”