That’s all that has prevented the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets from achieving a .500 record in American Southwest Conference play. Instead, second-year head coach Braxton Harris’ squad carries a 1-5 league mark – and 1-6 overall record — to Texas Lutheran for Saturday’s 1 p.m. league tilt.
The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 28-27 loss to Sul Ross where Howard Payne closed the gap to a single point with just over a minute left, but an excessive celebration penalty after the touchdown pushed the extra point attempt back to 35 yards, which was missed.
“There’s definitely frustration when you’re that close to winning opportunities,” Harris said. “Four more points wins you two ball games right now and you’re sitting at 3-3 in the conference and 3-4 overall, which we’d all be pretty excited about. The reality is we’re not there right now, we didn’t make the plays we needed to make. That game came down to about five plays, and you never know when those five plays are going to come along, but we have to prepare to make those five plays.
“We have to get to the point that we hate losing more than we love winning. Once we hate losing we’ll do anything to avoid that emotion and the feeling that comes with that, and we’re starting to get there.”
Among the areas where Harris hopes to see improvement are more cohesion between the offense and defense in terms of establishing sustained momentum.
“Something that doesn’t showing up in the stats is not once in the first half did the offense score and the defense followed with a stop, or when the defense got a stop the offense scored,” Harris said. “That to me, is our biggest deficit right now, we’ve got to learn to play together as a team so that when moments come along we have to take advantage of them.”
Though the outcome wasn’t what HPU wanted, there were still numerous positives.
“When you got beat by a team last year 52-17 and you feel like you should have won the ballgame, that’s a bright spot as we move forward in this process,” Harris said. “We knew it was a process and things weren’t going to get fixed overnight, but we’re making progress. Last year we didn’t have opportunities to compete in some games. We’re still a young football team that’s getting opportunities to see moments when they can win a football game. You have to learn from those moments before you learn how to win.”
Looking ahead to Texas Lutheran (5-2, 4-2)— which had a three-game win streak snapped by Hardin-Simmons, 58-14, last week — Harris is extremely familiar with the program having served as defensive coordinator there prior to arriving at HPU.
“I was there six years so a lot of those kids that are seniors are kids that I recruited,” Harris said. “They’re the model we’re trying to build our program around in terms of how they’ve improved things and gotten a little better each year.”
The Jackets head into Saturday’s contest averaging 18 points and 257 yards — 185 passing and 72 rushing — per game, with 15 turnovers.
Quarterback Gage McClanahan has connected on 109 of 191 passes for 1,295 yards with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Leading receivers include DunTavyun Gross (39-376, 3 TDs), Jordan Bryant (21-260, 3 TDs), Thomas Williams (14-245, 2 TDs), Eric Haverstock (9-147, TD) and Tariq Gray (9-134). On the ground, Kaidrion Latson (325 yards, 2 TDs) and Brett Martinez (169 yards, TD) lead the way.
Texas Lutheran counters with a defense that allows 26 points and 356 yards — 274 through the air and only 82 on the ground — per outing, with 16 takeaways.
Standouts include DaKwa Davis (51 tackles, 7 for loss, 3.5 sacks), Emory Cuzzie (50 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 sack), James Bell (34 tackles, 4 INTs) and Manny Longoria (27 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 9 sacks).
“On defense they’re very much a junior-senior football team,” Harris said. “The line is quick and athletic off the football, and they like to keep it in front of them and run to the football. We’re going to have our hands full this week.
“Offensively we have to go finish drives. We opened up the game last week with a 13-play drive, and that looks great and we’re excited to see that, but then we get third-and-2 and couldn’t get a first down on two tries. We have to accelerate in the end and go finish.We also have to limit the bad plays. If something’s not there, live to play another day and another down.”
On the flip side, the HPU defense is yielding 41 points and 492 yards — 272 passing and 220 rushing — per outing, with 10 takeaways.
Leading tacklers include Austin Killgore (61 tackles, 6 for loss, 1.5 sacks), Britt Boler (56 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 3 sacks), Tevin Dawson (40 tackles, 1.5 for loss), Elijah Washington (33 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 FR), Brady Wade (33 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FR), Collin Wright (28 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks), and Anthony Lindsey (28 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 sack, 2 FRs).
Texas Lutheran’s offense is manufacturing 29 points and 389 yards — 209 rushing and 180 passing — per contest, with 13 turnovers.
Kyle Grona (90 of 165 for 914 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs) and Jarvis Brooks (30 of 57 for 341 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs) have split time at quarterback, while leading rushers include Chris Monroe (532 yards, 4 TDs) and Austin Mathews (461 yards, 7 TDs). Primary receiving threats are Charles Robinson (33-429, TD), Pearce Loth (21-208, 3 TDs), C.J. Romero (19-236, 2 TDs), and D’Andre Gallagher (15-137, 2 TDs).
“They’ve got good quarterbacks, good running backs, and a senior-laden offensive line,” Harris said. “They’re going to challenge you to make plays, and they’ve got guys that have made plays before in the past.
“Defensively, we gave up 50 percent of third down conversions and 3 of 7 long conversions last week. We have to get off the field on third down. We have to get a pass rush with four or five guys and then mix our coverages up and be able to execute our blitzes.”
Despite a couple of victories alluding the Yellow Jackets, their resolve to get back in the win column in 2018 remains strong.
“Not many teams in the nation can respond to a disappointing situation as our kids have,” Harris said. “They respond because they believe in what we’re trying to do and they believe we’re real close to being able to break this thing open.
“Everything we’re talking about this week is pounding the rock. It goes back to the old stone cutter, is it the 101st blow that splits the rock or the 100 before? Right now we’re still on the 100 before, but if we cheat one of those 100 it’s going to cost us extra down the line.”