At halftime of Saturday night’s season opener, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets had the Southwestern Assemblies of God Lions exactly where they wanted them. But by the end of the night, SAGU had managed to spoil the head coaching debut of Hunter Sims as the Yellow Jackets suffered a 27-21 loss at Gordon Wood Stadium.

Howard Payne forced four first-half turnovers en route to an 18-7 halftime lead, but the Yellow Jackets created just one second-half takeaway in the final minute and gave the ball away five times overall which allowed SAGU to rally.

“One game doesn’t define where we’re at,” Sims said. “The scoreboard didn’t reflect our effort, but the guys were in it down to the last minute.”

The Lions scored on their first three possessions of the second half to quickly turn an 11-point deficit into a 27-18 advantage with 10:21 remaining in the contest.

“The biggest deal, and you could probably see it, was the cramping and the fatigue and that might be on me and how hard we worked those guys in conditioning,” Sims said. “You never want to see injuries, but cramping is something that can be avoided to a certain extent. I just felt like we got winded, got a little bit tired and that was the difference in the game.”

The Yellow Jackets finished with 316 yards of total offense — 245 passing and 71 rushing — while the Lions racked up 479 yards — 299 through the air and 180 on the ground. Both teams finished with five turnovers.

Caisson Montieth, in his first start at quarterback, completed 18 of 35 passes for 245 yards with a pair of touchdowns and four interceptions. Montieth also rushed for a team-best 37 yards. Derrick Williams caught five passes for 107 yards with a touchdown, Adrian Finley added four grabs for 68 yards and Justin Acosta hauled in three receptions for 20 yards with a trip to the end zone. Acosta also rushed for 21 yards while Ezekiel Jordan chipped in 20 on the ground.

“One thing I was nervous about was the offensive line since only one guy there had started a game before today, but I thought they played pretty well,” Sims said. “Caisson, starting his first game, had some big plays and had a few plays that weren’t great. But Derrick Williams showed up today in a big way.”

C.J. Collins sparked the SAGU offense as he completed 22 of 33 passes for 299 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while also rushing for 70 yards. J.P. Lowery added 101 yards and three touchdowns on the ground while Jeremy Carr caught four passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.

HPU’s defense was led by Jason Disney, who tallied 15 tackles and forced a fumble, while Patrick Hunt added nine, Dylan Hudson and Britt Boler finished with eight, Austin Kilgore added seven, Kris Mack collected six, Isaac Sanchez recorded five and J.T. Estes tallied four tackles, recovered two fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown.

“J.T.’s a warrior and for sure played really well,” Sims said. “He may have played almost every play.

“And for Cody Gilbert, calling his first game as a coordinator on defense, to have the defense score a touchdown and force five turnovers, I thought they played pretty well. We gave up some timely touchdowns that hurt but I’m proud of the defense and the staff.”

Trailing at halftime, SAGU closed the gap to 18-13 with an 11-play, 67-yard drive as Lowery scored on an 18-yard run with 8:05 left in the third. The Lions’ next drive covered 76 yards in seven plays as Lowery again found the end zone from 10 yards out, putting SAGU back in front, 20-18, with 14:23 left in the contest.

After Howard Payne failed to score inside the red zone on its ensuing drive, Collins connected with Carr on an 89-yard touchdown pass that capped a two-play, 91-yard trek and extended the Lions’ advantage to 27-18.

The Yellow Jackets closed the gap to one score when Disney booted a 33-yard field goal with 3:04 left.

Down 27-21 in the final minute, Howard Payne forced a SAGU fumble, but the Yellow Jackets took over possession 93 yards from the end zone. The drive stalled, SAGU regained possession and ran out the clock.

In the first half, SAGU took a 7-0 lead at the 6:49 mark of the first period as Lowery’s 4-yard touchdown run ended a 14-play, 75-yard drive.

The momentum for the remainder of the first half swung over to Howard Payne’s side when Montieth hooked up with Williams on a 81-yard touchdown reception. The Yellow Jackets missed the extra point, and SAGU clung to a 7-6 lead with 2:14 left in the opening period.

A Lowery fumble recovered by Boler triggered the go-ahead drive for the Yellow Jackets. A seven-play, 60-yard march followed with Montieth hitting Acosta in the flat for a 13-yard touchdown reception, which gave Howard Payne a 12-7 lead with 7:38 left before halftime.

SAGU pounced on a Yellow Jacket fumble on the HPU 36 with 55 seconds left before halftime, and appeared on the verge of regaining the lead before intermission. But Estes stepped in front of a Collins pass to the sideline and returned a pick six 94 yards to stake Howard Payne to an 18-7 advantage with 17 seconds left before intermission.

The Yellow Jackets will attempt to bounce back at noon Saturday as they visit Austin College (0-1), which fell to Hendrix, 55-23, in its season opener.