Prior to Saturday night, or the wee hours of Sunday morning by the time it was over, the last victory for the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets at Gordon Wood Stadium occurred on Halloween 2015.
In a game that could rival any horror flick or suspense thriller in terms of twists and turns, the Yellow Jackets knocked off the McMurry War Hawks 37-31 in two overtimes in the American Southwest Conference opener, halting a 10-game home losing streak in the process. The win was also the first time Howard Payne was victorious in a league opener since 2014.
Along with the two extra sessions, there was a 2 1/2-hour lightning delay that struck with 4:25 left in the first half, right after Howard Payne seized its first advantage. A game that began at 7 p.m. Saturday didn't end until 12:19 a.m. Sunday, but for the Yellow Jackets the wait was well worth it.
"I'm really proud of our kids for being able to handle a 2 1/2-hour rain delay and come out the way we did for the second part of the game. I'm really proud of that effort," said HPU second-year head coach Braxton Harris, who picked up his second victory at the university. "As young as we are, those are things that are hard to learn unless you go through them.
"To get that monkey off our back," Harris added in regard to the string of losses at Gordon Wood Stadium, "and to be able to push forward gives our kids some confidence in what we're doing and that we are getting better."
Knotted at 31 in the second overtime, McMurry (0-3, 0-2) took possession of the ball first and was poised to attempt a 42-yard field goal, but a poor snap denied the War Hawks the opportunity to even attempt the kick.
Howard Payne (1-1, 1-0) just needed to put points of any type on the board on its possession in the second OT after McMurry generated none, and the Jackets wasted little time. After a 3-yard carry to the McMurry 22 by Kaidrion Latson on first down, quarterback Gage McClanahan connected on his fourth scoring toss of the game to Thomas Williams, who hauled in his second touchdown reception to end the contest and begin the celebration.
"Offensively we had some guys make some really big plays at the end of the ball game for us," Harris said. "I'm really proud of how they responded after struggling early. (Offensive coaches) Coby Gipson, Scott Clough and Luke Wagner are doing a phenomenal job with those guys. They just kept coaching and coaching and believing in them."
The Yellow Jackets finished with 411 yards of total offense, including 265 through the air, as McClanahan bounced back from a four-interception performance in a 35-3 loss at George Fox last week with four passing touchdowns, one more on the ground, and just one turnover.
DunTayviun Gross finished with five receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown, Williams hauled in four catches for 73 yards and two scores and Jordan Bryant grabbed five receptions for 30 yards and one trip to the end zone.
On the ground, Latson rushed for 126 of HPU's 146 rushing yards.
The HPU offense began to warm up right before the weather delay as McClanahan connected with Gross on a 58-yard touchdown pass, which capped a quick three-play, 65-yard drive that gave Howard Payne its first advantage.
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets yielded 31 points over four-plus quarters, but McMurry managed just 10 points before the break. The War Hawks finished with 436 yards, including 375 through the air, but turned the ball over twice as Elijah Washington and Dylan Zeno picked off passes, with Deno's coming in the end zone. Austin Kilgore led HPU with 13 tackles while Collin Wright chipped in 11, including 3.5 for loss with 1.5 sacks.
"I thought our defense came out and played really well during the first part," Harris said. "We hit them in the mouth, but our offense struggled a little bit. Then in the second part of it, I thought it was almost polar opposites, we struggled and gave up some big plays on third down defensively that really hurt."
Leading by four points when play resumed, the Yellow Jackets increased their advantage to double digits before the conclusion of the second period. With 32 seconds to go, Williams hauled in a 15-yard scoring toss from McClanahan to cap a three-play, 46-yard march for a 21-10 Yellow Jackets lead.
McMurry, however, would not fade away.
The War Hawks closed the gap to 21-17 at 5:27 of the third on a 39-yard scoring toss from Xavier Alexander to Spencer Knox, who finished with three receptions - all touchdowns - totaling 187 yards.
A 39-yard field goal by Christian Gonzalez pushed Howard Payne's lead to 24-17 with 11:36 remaining, but just 74 seconds later Alexander - who threw for 339 yards with three touchdowns and two picks- connected with Knox again on an 80-yard catch and run as McMurry drew even at 24-all.
"In the second part of the game there were some good things that happened and moments where we had a chance to really put it on them, get some positives going, and we just couldn't get over the hump," Harris said. "But the kids kept fighting and kept playing, they never lost belief and they played hard the whole time. That's how you win football games."
The fact that Howard Payne never fell behind despite McMurry trying desperately to wrestle away the momentum is among the brightest spots in the victory.
"What that shows is that we're more mature than we have been," Harris said. "We're not where we want to be, but we're more mature than we have been. To be able to withstand when a team makes a run at you, that's part of maturing. Our team hasn't played with a lead very much so this was a great learning experience for us on how to play with a lead. We're always continuing to learn from these opportunities, but it's a lot more fun to learn from them when you win."
The Yellow Jackets unsuccessfully attempted a field goal in the final minute of regulation to win the game, but took the first possession of overtime 25 yards in just two plays, with a McClanahan toss to Bryant covering the distance, as HPU grabbed a 31-24 lead.
McMurry answered with a seven-play trek that ended with Trevion Harris catching a 9-yard touchdown pass from Alexander on third-and-goal to draw even, but the War Hawks were unable to tack on points during the second possession.
The War Hawks scored the first points of the night when Knox caught a 61-yard touchdown from Alexander just 2:26 into the contest.
The Yellow Jackets answered with a five-play, 75-yard journey than ended on McClanahan's 8-yard scramble to the end zone with 11:28 left in the first quarter.
McMurry briefly regained the lead, 10-7, on a 48-yard field goal by Tanner Wright with 5:28 left in the second period.
Howard Payne responded just 63 seconds later with its second touchdown, and never trailed again.
Next week, the Yellow Jackets will attempt to pull an upset at No. 8 Hardin-Simmons (2-0, 1-0), which manhandled Louisiana College, 57-21, Saturday.
"Our program is advancing and that's the way we need to feel as we continue this next stretch of games," Harris said. "This conference doesn't get any easier and we know what's ahead of us next week, but this win gives our kids some hope in what we're believing in."