ABILENE — The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets spotted the McMurry War Hawks a 27-0 halftime lead en route to a 33-21 loss in Saturday night’s American Southwest Conference football opener, but first-year head coach Braxton Harris found plenty of positives to take away from HPU’s finish.

“This is a 1-21 football team over the last two-plus years and for those kids to fight their tails off like that until the end, I don’t care what anybody says or thinks, I’ll take those kids,” Harris said.

The Yellow Jackets (0-2, 0-1) scored on each on their final three drives behind the play of freshman quarterback Mitchell Jennings, who led Howard Payne to 242 of its 382 total yards. The Yellow Jackets scored on drives of 72, 80 and 90 yards over the final 20 minutes.

“I was really impressed with his ability to run our offense,” Harris said of Jennings. “You saw some signs for a freshman in his first college football game that’s he competitive and combative. That’s one of the bricks we talk about, being combative and I was excited to see that.”

Defensively, the Yellow Jackets surrendered just two field goals over the final two periods.

“The defense played well, especially in the second half,” Harris said. “When the defense plays well and the offense can go in and make things happen off that, that’s obviously the plan. We didn’t settle in on defense early, but (defensive coordinator) Coach (Beau) Davidson had a good plan mixing things up to use our quickness up front.”

Trailing 30-0, Jennings marched the Yellow Jackets 90 yards in eight plays before Kaidrion Latson — who rushed for 30 yards — scored on a 1-yard run to break up the shutout with 50 seconds left in the third period.

McMurry answered with a 43-yard field goal by Tanner Wright with 11:10 left to boost the lead to 33-7.

The Yellow Jackets fired right back, marching 72 yards in 15 plays as Hunter Batten — who accounted for 97 of HPU’s 240 yards on the ground — scored on a 1-yard dive to cut the deficit to 33-14.

Howard Payne got one more possession and traveled 80 yards in 11 plays as Latson reached the end zone for the second time on another 1-yard score with 18 seconds left for the final 12-point margin.

McMurry (1-2, 1-1) seized control in the first half as Kevin Hurley Jr. scored on a 22-yard quarterback keeper with 9:24 left in the first period, then Trevion Harris caught a 12-yard pass from Hurley at the 5:18 mark for a 13-0 cushion.

In the second period, Reagan Miller returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown with 6:56 left in the first half, while Harris hauled in his second touchdown pass from Hurley — a 23-yarder — to extend the lead to 27-0 with 33 seconds left in the second period.

After intermission, Wright booted his first field goal at the 11:33 mark of the third period to give the War Hawks their largest lead of 30 points.

McMurry finished with 387 total yards — 202 passing and 185 rushing. Hurley completed 16 of 22 passes for 165 yards and rushed for a team-best 102 yards. Jeremiah Jefferson caught six passes for 89 yards, Jacob Metcalf made four grabs for 36 yards and Tanner Clark snagged four receptions for 26 yards. Wade Barthelemy Jr. added 73 yards rushing for the War Hawks.

Jennings completed 8 of 11 passes for 98 yards for HPU and rushed for 41 yards, while Caisson Montieth connected on 9 of 20 attempts for 52 yards and added 33 yards on the ground. Tariq Gray caught eight passes for 73 yards while Eric Haverstock reeled in three passes for 46 yards. Jordan Lewis, Justin Barrera and Melvin Thompson caught two passes apiece for a combined 31 yards.

Defensively for the Yellow Jackets, Colton Dickerson notched 12 tackles followed by Tevin Dawson with seven, Zachary Eskridge with six, and Darius Edwards with five takedowns.

The Yellow Jackets host No. 8 Hardin-Simmons (2-0, 1-0), which is coming off a 55-10 victory over Louisiana College, in their home opener at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium.

“This will be a great opportunity to play a dominant Top 10, Top 5 team that will give us a great measuring stick for where we want to be one day,” Harris said. “We’re just going to continue with our process, and you’re starting to see some things turn over in some places. Two weeks ago I thought we played one good quarter and this game we played two quarters like a college football team. I fully understand the outcome tonight, I’m disappointed and those kids in the locker room are disappointed, but we’re not going to slow down or change the process. We’ll get back to work on Monday.”