With an expected media circus slated to take place at Gordon Wood Stadium Saturday, the American Southwest Conference football showdown between Howard Payne and Sul Ross might get lost in the shuffle — for everyone but the Yellow Jackets.
The focus both statewide and nationally is on Sul Ross’ 59-year-old linebacker Mike Flynt, the son of Brownwood’s Pat Flynt, who will be making his season debut to become the oldest player to ever compete in an NCAA football game. According the HPU athletic office, among the media outlets requesting credentials for Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest include television programs Texas Country Reporter and Inside Edition.
While HPU head coach Mike Redwine and the Yellow Jackets (0-3, 0-1) welcome the chance to be a part of history, their greater concern is ending a four-game losing streak that dates back to 2006, which in turn would result in their first victory of the season.
“If he plays or if he doesn’t play, our guys are excited about playing Sul Ross and another conference opponent,” Redwine said. “Any additional energy that surrounds the game as a result of the media hype and the anticipation of an NCAA record being set is fun for our team. But our guys want to find a way to beat Sul Ross whether anybody is here to see it and write about it or not.”
The Yellow Jackets and Lobos (2-2, 0-2) have had plenty of memorable games that didn’t grab the media spotlight, such as last year’s 60-56 shootout in Alpine won by Sul Ross.
Though Sul Ross’ offense has been explosive through its first four games of 2007 — averaging 28.5 points and 412.6 yards of total offense per game — Redwine doesn’t expect another 116 points to be scored between the two teams this year.
“Last year was a crazy game that no one really expected,” Redwine said. “Who knows what this will be, but I wouldn’t anticipate it being like that again. We’re playing good defense, and if we can play good special teams, I would think it would be a little more low scoring than last year.”
Special teams play has been the Achilles’ heel for the Yellow Jackets through their first three games. In their opening 42-14 loss to Southern Nazarene, the Jackets struggled with their punt game and had one blocked and returned for a touchdown. In their 20-18 loss at East Texas Baptist, three missed field goals haunted the Yellow Jackets. And last week’s 33-27 overtime defeat at Texas College featured kickoffs returned 94 and 88 yards for touchdowns.
“Unfortunately, special teams has been an area where we haven’t been able to get the job done in all phases,” Redwine said. “We’re continuing to work on those units to try and find the right combinations.
“One of the keys for us is we need to have an arsenal of different kicks so it makes it more difficult for their kick return unit to get set up. With the subtle rule change where you kick off at the 30 this year, there have been more touchdown returns. We’ll have to make a decision to pooch it, lob it or kick it deep.”
For the second game in a row, the Howard Payne defense yielded just two touchdowns. For the year, the Jackets are allowing only 280.7 yards of total offense per game — 94.3 yards rushing and 186.3 yards passing.
Linebacker Mark Jimenez leads the HPU defense with 22 tackles and two sacks, followed by cornerback Kasey Black’s 17 tackles, 16 from safeties Zach Dauer and Andrew Hansen and 14 tackles from safety Kevin Reyna.
Howard Payne’s defense could be facing its toughest test of the season, however, as the Loboes are led by three of the top skill players in the conference. On the flip side, however, Sul Ross has committed 15 turnovers in four games.
Quarterback Austin Davidson is 60-of-118 for 970 yards with 10 touchdowns, running back T.J. Barber has rushed for 333 yards and two touchdowns and Joc Quise Brown has hauled in 24 catches for 458 yards with six scores.
“They do have some weapons and a lot of experience on offense,” Redwine said. “Davidson is a real talent and Barber is arguably the best running back in the conference. Last year they were able to get the run game established with Barber, then Davidson got the hot hand. They had that balance and it got our defense on its heels, but we were able to do the same thing, which led to all the scoring las year.
“Our focus Saturday is on stopping Barber first, limiting the running game, and do the best we can within that to put pressure on Davidson. I feel like that’s our best chance to be successful defensively.”
The Yellow Jacket offense is coming off its best performance of the season as Howard Payne actually outgained Texas College, 351-242, in total yardage. The Yellow Jackets also eclipsed the 100-yard mark in rushing yards for the first time this season, finishing with 104 yards.
Cody McKenzie ran for 65 yards and two touchdowns last week, which gives him a team-high 73 yards rushing for the season. Quarterback Johnathon Haddock has added 53 yards and two scores while Jeff Jefferson has run for 49 yards and a touchdown.
Through the air, Haddock is 49-of-95 for 458 yards with a pair of touchdowns and five interceptions. Jordan Beard is the leading receiver with 10 catches for 119 yards, while Nice Sellars has emerged as the top deep threat with eight catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our offense came around some last week,” Redwine said. “We did some good things, made a couple of big plays and were able to sustain some drives. That helped us develop some consistency that wasn’t there the first couple of games.”
Howard Payne’s offense carry over its momentum this week as the Loboes are surrendering 33.5 points and 316 yards per game, including 186.2 yards on the ground.
“They’re putting up a lot of points, but they’ve given up a few points,” Redwine said. “They’ve been in a few more shootouts. Our games have been close, like several of theirs have been, but ours tended to be more low scoring. But you do whatever you have to do to win on each particular day.”
ASC FOOTBALL, Sul Ross (2-2, 0-2) at Howard Payne (0-3, 0-1), 1 p.m. Saturday, Gordon Wood Stadium, 2006 Result: Sul Ross 60, HPU 56