The 2003 season marked the last time the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets boarded a plane and opened a football season outside the state of Texas. The Yellow Jackets dropped a 42-0 decision at Wisconsin-LaCrosse, but went on to finish with a 6-4 overall record.

At 3 p.m. Saturday, the Yellow Jackets kick off the 2018 campaign, their second under head coach Braxton Harris, in Newburg, Oregon against the George Fox Bruins. The Yellow Jackets, coming off a 1-9 effort a year ago, are targeting their first winning season since 2005.

“It’s a huge step forward for our program,” Harris said. “I’ve said from day one we want to build a program, we just don’t want to put a football team together. If you look at the successful teams in the American Southwest Conference, they get on planes and fly and play people nationally. That’s a huge step for us to say we’re in that ballpark. It gets Howard Payne into the conversation that we’re going to treat our kids right and give them a great experience.”

While excitement is understandable, so is a bit of perturbation as the experience of flying to a football game is new for everyone associated with Howard Payne football.

“The anxious part, it’s not really nervous or scared, is the unknown of how the kids will handle the trip,” Harris said. “There’s extra people on the trip, so how does that work out, then at the end of the day you hope the plane and the busses show up. But we’re real excited about the opportunity because it’s a huge step in the right direction for Howard Payne football.”

The Yellow Jackets reported for preseason practices on Aug. 11 and in that time Harris believes the squad has taken the necessary strides to be prepared for Saturday’s opener.

“You get to a certain point where you’re tired of hitting each other and you have to go and be able to see where you stand,” Harris said. “We think we’re moving in the right direction, we’re excited about the progress, but until you put it on the line against someone else you really don’t know where you stand. The question of if we’re better than we were last year at this time, the answer is 100 percent without a doubt. Now we have to figure out how good is that, and what do we have to do to continue to push forward. It’s been neat to see kids progress through these three weeks, kids that started off slow and then started picking up the schemes and have continued to get better. That’s always the fun thing about fall camp.”

While Saturday’s game will be the first of 2018 for HPU, George Fox opened its campaign last week with a 20-12 defeat at the hands of Redlands, a slight upset. With the loss, the Bruins received just five votes in the most recent Top 25 rankings, down from the 11 votes in the preseason poll. Redlands, meanwhile, received eight votes this week, up from three.

Despite the loss, having a game under their belts gives a significant edge to the Bruins.

“It’s a huge advantage for them there’s no question about it,” Harris said. “That first game speed, that’s a huge part of the football game, so that’s a huge advantage for them and something we have to be able to overcome. A huge advantage to us, though, is the high is supposed to be about 72 degrees, so our guys should be fresh. We’ve done some things throughout the course of the week conditioning wise to get our guys extended a little bit, to get them fresh.”

In George Fox’s loss last week, the Bruins finished with 313 total yards — 248 passing, 65 rushing — and did not turn over the ball. Quarterback Jack Taylor completed 18 of 35 passes for 248 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 19 yards, second most on the team. Anthony Garcia led the way with 25 yards rushing while Wesley Riddell chipped in 17 yards and a touchdown. James Nguyen hauled in a 63-yard scoring reception while other receiving threats include Bronson Ramos (3-60), Evan Nelson (4-34) and Kenny May (3-44).

The Yellow Jackets could hold the advantage in the kicking game as George Fox used two place kickers against Redlands — one that missed an extra point and another that missed a field goal.

On the defensive end, George Fox surrendered 406 yards — 254 through the air and 152 on the ground — with one sack and two fumble recoveries. Charles Riga finished with 17 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, while Trevor Thiessen and Austin Taylor amassed 13 tackles apiece.

“I haven’t seen a lot of them on film, they’re a new opponent, but what I do know is that they’re in the fifth year of their program and last year was their most successful year in school history,” Harris said. “They’re going to be a disciplined football team and they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re going to be physical, they’ve got big guys up there in the Northwest and they run the football well. They also play good run defense on the other side of the football. Again, they’re not going to beat themselves so we’re going to have to go there and beat them.”

Howard Payne is looking to improve on the 19 points and 294 yards generated per game last season, along with the 56 points and 535 yards surrendered. The Yellow Jackets are led on the field by their three seniors — offensive linemen Abraham Centeno and Travis Folmar and defensive lineman Collin Wright. Other key returnees include middle linebacker Britt Boler, safety Tevin Dawson, defensive linemen Brady Wade and Jaylon Jeffery, and running backs Brett Martinez and Kaidrion Latson. Newcomers to watch include quarterback Gage McClanahan, a junior transfer from Augustana University, and receiver Duntayviun Gross, a junior transfer from Cisco Junior College.

As for the offensive and defensive objectives against George Fox, Harris said, “My hope is to be able to see the speed of our team improve. One of the advantages we think we have is we think we’ll be able to run well with those guys. Hopefully on offense we’ll see some guys move around and make some plays down the field.

“Defensively, we hope to be able to run to the football, play physical up front and stop the run. That’s always the thing we have to be able to do, that and eliminate big plays. On the offensive side of the ball it’s the complete opposite. We have to be able to run the football. They’re a good defensive front, but we have to be able to run the football. What will help that as well is the vertical plays. We need explosive plays on our end as well.”

As for the importance of a season-opening victory against a program on the national radar, Harris said, “It would be the next step in the process and it’s a huge opportunity for us. This is a game we feel like is a winnable football game for us and we’re excited to get the opportunity to be able to go and do it. The exciting thing is the ability to go compete, put it on the line and see where we’re at. That’s how our guys are looking at it, an opportunity to go compete with somebody that has some national ties and we’re excited to be able to see us push forward. But make no bones about it, winning’s winning and that’s always good for the program.”