Last weekend, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets shocked the American Southwest Conference. This weekend, they will try to shock the nation.
The Yellow Jackets already tamed one ASC beast, and head coach Steve Fanara’s troops will attempt to slay another conference dragon at 2 p.m. Saturday when the No. 7 Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders invade Gordon Wood Stadium.
Howard Payne (4-4, 2-4) is coming off its biggest win in Fanara’s two seasons as head coach, a 38-24 victory at Mississippi College that bumped the No. 23 Choctaws (6-2, 5-1) into a first-place tie atop the ASC standings with Mary Hardin-Baylor (7-1, 5-1).
“It was a huge win for the program in the fact that it was verification that we are doing some of the right things,” Fanara said. “That was important for our kids and our coaches. The fact that the seniors were able to experience that type of win was also very rewarding and something to be encouraged about.”
Fanara, however, wants to make sure the Yellow Jackets have put last week’s victory behind them before they take the field Saturday.
“Our guys have to shake off the win and focus on a very good football team,” Fanara said. “Yeah (UMHB) lost to Mississippi College, but I still think they are the best team in the conference. Our guys understand what we’re up against, especially the ones that have been around the program. We’ve got to have another special game, there’s no question. It’s going to take an extraordinary effort to beat these guys.”
A second straight seven-turnover performance by the defense would go a long way toward helping the Yellow Jackets reach the level of play Fanara seeks. Howard Payne leads the ASC both in turnovers forced (26) and turnover margin (+14). Though the Yellow Jackets allowed 530 yards of total offense last week, the HPU defense turned back Mississippi College twice in the red zone, and denied the Choctaws on a pair of crucial fourth downs in the fourth quarter.
Safety Jordan Pfenenger intercepted a pair of passes to earn ASC defensive player of the week accolades, while Kevin Reyna, Joey Lewis and Dustin McClure also picked off passes. Lewis and Aaron Martin forced fumbles for the HPU defense.
“We talked about having to eliminate Mississippi College’s possessions and that’s exactly what the defense did,” Fanara said. “It’s just kids making plays and stepping up and doing the things they’re coached to do. We work on forcing turnovers, stripping the ball, but every team does that. You look at the seven turnovers and I believe every one of them we had a hand in, either stripping or tipping the ball.
“Then we came up with two big fourth down stops at the end of the game that allowed us to shut them out in the fourth quarter.”
Offensively, the HPU passing attack had another field day as quarterback Zach Hubbard earned ASC offensive player of the week honors for the second straight week after completing 27-of-50 passes for 453 yards with five touchdowns against Mississippi College.
The Yellow Jackets’ top three receivers proved to be among the most dangerous trios in the league as Corbin Young tallied seven receptions for 103 yards and two touchdowns, Edward Cody grabbed five catches for 93 yards with a score and Tre Mason finished with four receptions for 114 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
For the season, Hubbard has connected on 217-of-359 pass attempts for 2,681 yards with 24 touchdowns and five interceptions, while Cody (46-504, 5 TDs), Mason (44-682, 10 TDs) and Young (27-330, 2 TDs) are each in the midst of monster seasons.
Fanara attributes the Jackets’ offensive success to Hubbard’s improved decision making, as well as stellar blocking by the offensive line.
“It all starts with the protection,” said Fanara, whose team is averaging 33 points, 401 total yards and 344 passing yards per game. “We put in some routes that did require a little bit of extra time, and Zach was given that time. Zach’s also done a better job of managing the game, not forcing things and not turning it over. He had some opportunities to force some things last week but opted to throw it away.”
Both the HPU offense and defense will face their greatest challenges of the season against UMHB. The Crusaders lead the ASC in scoring offense (38.2 ppg), scoring defense (9.2 ppg), total yards (441 ypg), yards allowed (228 ypg), rushing offense (306 ypg) and passing defense (156 ypg), among several other statistical categories.
“If you look at the conference stats, they’re No. 1 or No. 2 in just about every category,” Fanara said. “They don’t give up points, they don’t give up rushing yards and they don’t give up passing yards. They’re just an all-around, solid, physical team.”
Mary Hardin-Baylor ranks second to HPU with 22 takeaways this season, which could prove to be a challenge for a Yellow Jacket offense that has coughed up the ball just 12 times through eight games. But Fanara and the Yellow Jackets hope to use the Crusaders’ aggressiveness on defense against them.
“They don’t give up much, 228 yards a game and 3.3 yards a play,” Fanara said. “When you look at the stats you’d think folks wouldn’t have a chance. They blitzed us quite a bit last year, and we haven’t seen much of that in film from them this year. But I would suspect we’ll see a fair share of pressure.
“Their secondary and linebacking crew is very fast and run to the ball well. To some degree, we have to take advantage of their speed with misdirection, play-action and things that will penalize their aggressiveness.”
On the offensive side, UMHB has several weapons in its ground arsenal. Quarterback LiDarral Bailey (88-673, 7 TDs) leads the charge, along with running backs Quincy Daniels (85-528, 8 TDs), Desmond Mays (51-285, 3 TDs), Rickie Williams (50-269, 3 TDs) and Bryson Tucker (32-264, 3 TDs).
Bailey has also completed 35-of-60 passes for 489 yards with four TDs. The Crusaders’ top receivers include Pi’Dadro Davis (23-377, 6 TDs), Ervin Johnson (12-122) and Brian Scott (11-175, 2 TDs).
“Offensively, they’re more multiple than Mary Hardin-Baylor teams of old,” Fanara said. “It used to be the power running game and the option were all you saw. Now, one play they’re in the spread and the next play they’re in a two tight end set. It gives us more to prepare for.”
Matching the physical play of the UMHB offensive line will be a key for the Yellow Jacket defense in its attempt to slow down the Crusaders’ rushing attack.
“We have to play a physical brand of football, primarily on defense and special teams,” Fanara said. “They have shown they can run the ball against us in the past, so we have to be physical and try and set the tone in that regard.”
Most importantly for the Yellow Jackets — as they attempt to pull off a second consecutive ASC shocker — will be keeping the mistakes to a minimum.
“We need to play near perfect,” Fanara said. “Any mistakes, penalties or turnovers against a good football team is just magnified. We’ve had pretty good success not turning the ball over and we’ll have to continue that trend. It’d be nice if we could create some on the other side, but they’re not a team that turns it over a bunch.
“Our mindset is anything is possible, and success has no limitations. We’ve got to first believe that we can do it, and I think our kids do, but we’re going to have to play awfully well.”