Unable to string together consecutive victories for the first time since 2014 last week, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets now prepare for their toughest challenge of the season — a road trip to defending national champion and top-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Kickoff between the Yellow Jackets (1-4, 1-3) and Crusaders (5-0, 4-0) in the American Southwest Conference tilt is slated for 1 p.m. Saturday at Crusader Stadium.

Howard Payne is coming off a 57-7 home loss to East Texas Baptist, while UMHB withstood a test from No. 5 Hardin-Simmons for a 17-7 victory.

“East Texas Baptist is a good football team that came in and performed like the veteran football team that they are and have been for many years now,” said HPU first-year head coach Braxton Harris. “I thought there were some signs that we did some really good things. The offense moved the ball really well at times, our running game did some good things and we had some explosive plays on the perimeter, some guys making some catches.

“We started our third quarterback of the year, and Jaxson (Durham) did a good job managing the game for a guy making his first start. He stood in the pocket and made passes that were good, but we just can’t turn the football over. At the end of the day it came down to two things — turnovers and explosive plays. We didn’t have as many explosive plays as we would have liked and gave up more than we would have liked.”

In facing No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor this week, Harris embraces the opportunity for the Yellow Jackets — many of whom have never played against the Crusaders — to compete against a national championship program.

“Not a lot of people get this opportunity and our guys do, many of them as freshmen and sophomores,” Harris said. “Make no bones about it, that’s what we want to grow this program to be. Sometimes you don’t know what that looks like, but we will definitely know after this week. We’re excited to be able to go out and continue our process. Our goal is to get better from last week. If we turn on the film Sunday and we did things better than we did against East Texas Baptist, that’s where we want to continue to progress to.”

Winners of 20 consecutive games, the Crusaders have grabbed headlines in 2017 for the play of their defense, which Harris considers, “probably the best defense I’ve seen them have and I’ve watched them for a while now.”

UMHB is yielding unheard of numbers in this day of wide-open offenses, surrendering just 7 points and 190 yards — 143 passing and 47 rushing — per game. The Crusaders have also forced 13 turnovers.

“(Head) Coach (Pete) Fredenburg and Coach (Larry) Harmon, the defensive coordinator, do a great job there,” Harris said. “They’ve been together for a long time.”

Standouts on the Crusader defense include linebackers Santos Villarreal (27 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery) and Tevin Jones (26 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 fumble recovery), tackle Brazos Fuller (21 tackles, 7 for loss, 2 sacks) and cornerbacks Kris Brown (22 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery) and Reggie Wilson (20 tackles, 1 interception).

Howard Payne counters with an offense that produces 22 points and 294 yards — 185 on the ground and 109 through the air — per outing, with 11 turnovers.

Quarterbacks Jaxson Durham (18 of 37 for 152 yards, 3 INTs), Mitchell Jennings (18 of 47 for 265 yards, 2 TDs, INT) and Caisson Montieth (20 of 39 for 127 yards, 1 TDs, 2 INTs) have all seen action over the last two weeks. The ground game is anchored by Hunter Batten (353 yards, 5 TDs), Brett Martinez (209 yards, 2 TDs) and Kaidrion Laston (83 yards, 2 TDs). Leading receivers include Eric Haverstock (15-120), Tariq Gray (12-144, TD), Laston (8-50), Edwin Godfrey (6-146, 2 TDs), Justin Barrera (5-14) and Chase Eisenmann (3-30).

Mary Hardin-Baylor’s offense is averaging just 32 points and 358 yards — 217 passing and 141 rushing — per game, which is down compared to recent standards. However, the Crusaders haven’t needed to score many points this year thanks to the defensive effort.

“Numbers aren’t everything, just turn on the film and watch them play and it’s a very, very good offense,” Harris said. “They’re able to control the game with their offense and when you feel like you’ve gotten comfortable they’re able to take it over the top and make a big play. They’ve got some explosive guys out on the perimeter, but they’ve been searching for a quarterback. They’ve played T.J. Josey some, and Kyle Jones. They’re working through some of those things, but the guys they have to throw the ball to are impressive. And their offensive line averages 6-2, 285.”

Josey has played everywhere for UMHB, completing 35 of 60 passes for 362 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, while rushing for 206 yards and two scores and catching five passes for 192 yards and two trips to the end zone.

Other offensive weapons include Jones (47 of 76 for 706 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs) at quarterback, Markeith Miller (464 rushing yards, 3 TDs) out of the backfield and receivers Bryce Wilkerson (22-228, 3 TDs), Isaiah Townes (13-185, 2 TDs), Jonel Reed (10-171, TD) and Demetrius Taylor (4-99, TD).

The Yellow Jacket defense is giving up 51 points and 497 yards — 293 passing and 204 rushing — per game with eight takeaways.

Standouts include Tevin Dawson (35 tackles, 2.5 loss, 1 sacks, 1 interception), Austin Kilgore (31 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack), Jake Wright (27 tackles, 4 for loss, 1.5 sacks), Colton Dickerson (19 tackles), Brady Wade (14 tackles, 5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) and Patrick Hunt (14 tackles, 3 interceptions).

“This a great opportunity to play the team that’s the best in all the land,” Harris said. “We want to see our kids go compete, see our schemes match up, find out if there’s something we can give them problems with, and see if we as coaches can be at our best this week as well. We’re always going to challenge our whole program to be at our best, and that’s what we have to do this week. We want to beat some challenges we’re going to face, overcome some adversities and trust in the process.”