For the first time since Sept. 3 — a span of five weeks — the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets will play a football game at Gordon Wood Stadium. The Yellow Jackets’ second home game of the season presents a daunting challenge, however, as the No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders visit at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The Yellow Jackets (0-4, 0-1) are coming off a 35-7 loss at Louisiana College in their American Southwest Conference opener, while the Crusaders (4-0, 1-0) opened league play with a 66-3 thrashing of McMurry a week ago.

“It’s going to be strange because it’s been so long,” HPU first-year head coach Hunter Sims said of playing a game in Brownwood. “It’s such an odd schedule for us and the Brownwood Lions, with how little Gordon Wood Stadium has been used. Even one of their games got rained out. Back at home will be good, but UMHB is going to bring an even better team on the road because they travel with their playoff roster, which is limited to the high-50s of who they can bring.”

On paper, Sims said this could be the best team Mary Hardin-Baylor has fielded.

“Three years ago, UMHB lost by one point in the semifinals and they’re as good as that team,” Sims said. “I completely respect Mary Hardin-Baylor, but I think sometimes teams get too anxious going into games and make mistakes they don’t normally make. You see everything on paper beforehand and that’s what you expect, and if you think it that’s what it’s going to be.”

In last week’s loss at Louisiana College, the Yellow Jackets trailed by just seven points until the final minute of the third period.

“What I liked was how hard we played, our aggressiveness and that our guys didn’t back down from them,” Sims said. “They were a very experienced team and had a three-headed monster with their quarterback, running back and receiver. But we had six sacks and 14 tackles for loss, so we were creating negative plays in the backfield. I thought we contained them all pretty well for about three quarters and then they broke free in the fourth quarter.

“We had a lot of air taken out of us in the third quarter. We had what should have been a safety called back, then later we had a 90-yard touchdown called back. We had a 10-play span where our emotions were through the roof because it could have been 16-14 us going into the fourth quarter. We wound up being down 21-7 at the end of the third quarter and knew it was an uphill battle. Offensively, we hit a couple of big plays but we haven’t had enough explosive plays to be able to change the game and that’s somewhere that we have to get better.”

The Yellow Jackets enter Saturday’s contest averaging 20 points and 320 yards — 166 passing and 154 rushing — per game, with 11 turnovers. UMHB is yielding just 13 points and 243 yards — 184 through the air and 59 on the ground — with 17 takeaways.

HPU quarterback Caisson Montieth has completed 54 of 105 passes for 664 yards with five touchdowns and eight interceptions, while rushing for a team-best 356 yards and a touchdown. Receiving threats include Adrian Finley (9-140), Shannon Warren (9-93), Derrick Williams (8-202, 2 TDs), Justin Acosta (6-31), Tracy Morrison (3-31), Austin Bauman (3-25), Baletin Carranco (2-38), Aroldo Nandin (2-21) and Leland Brown (2-13, 2 TDs). Primary rushers include Acosta (137 yards, TD) and Warren (94 yards, 3 TDs).

Leading the charge for the UMHB defense are Baylor Mullins (28 tackles, two interceptions), Keith Reineke (26 tackles, one interception), Matt Cody (24 tackles, one interception), Haston Adams (21 tackles, seven for loss, one sack, one fumble recovery), Tevin Jones (19 tackles, one interception), Jaedon Johnson (16 tackles, three interceptions) and Teidrick Smith (16 tackles, 7.5 for loss, four sacks, one fumble recovery).

“Teidrick Smith is back and is the two-time reigning defensive player of the year and defensive lineman of the year in the conference,” Sims said. “He might graduate as the most decorated defensive player in ASC history. But he’s not the only player they have.

“Offensively I want to see us get first downs. If we can control the ball and just get first downs everything else will take care of itself. If you get enough first downs obviously you’re going to score a touchdown. We’re just going to give everything we can and come out swinging. Nothing this team has showed me yet makes me think anything different.”

The Crusader offense is generating 61 points and 550 yards — 308 rushing and 242 passing — per outing, with just four turnovers. Quarterback Blake Jackson paces the offense as he’s completed 66 of 103 passes for 914 yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions, while rushing for 361 yards and three more scores.

Receiving threats includes T.J. Josey (15-242, 3 TDs), DeNarian Thomas (15-126, 3 TDs), Bryce Wilkerson (11-65, TD), Duane Thompson (9-116, 2 TDs) and Wykeyhe Walker (8-199, 3 TDs), while Markeith Miller (424 yards, 4 TDs) and Thompson (290 yards, 4 TDs) anchor the ground game.

The Yellow Jackets defense is surrendering 30 points and 466 yards — 310 passing and 156 rushing — with 10 takeaways.

Leading tacklers include Jason Disney (51 tackles, two for loss, one fumble recovery), Patrick Hunt (34 tackles), Dylan Hudson (25 tackles, one fumble recovery), Austin Kilgore (23 tackles, one sack), J.T. Estes (22 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries) and Britt Boler (19 tackles, one fumble recovery).

“What makes UMHB even more scary is the quarterback’s a dual threat,” Sims said. “He can throw it pretty well but if something breaks down he could potentially run it in from 70 yards out. He’s on pace to be the conference player of the year this year with 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He’s won player of the week multiple times already. UMHB is Top 3 in total offense and scoring against some good opponents, including at the time the third-ranked team in the nation (Linfield in a 66-27 victory Sept. 17).

“Defensively, we have to eliminate the big play. Our defense has played really, really well. It might not have shown up statistically, but it has with us being in every game. The key is slowing them down on offense. If you go back over the last 10 years and look at the losses they’ve had, they’ve all been relatively low-scoring games. They don’t lose 45-40 games, they’re all in the teens and 20s.”

And if the Yellow Jackets were to pull the upset?

“By far away, in my opinion, it would mark the turning point of the program, a staple you could always point back to and say that’s the game everybody believed and got it done,” Sims said.