Coming off perhaps their poorest performance of the season, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets are hoping to halt a six-game skid in front of a homecoming crowd as the Southwestern Pirates invade Gordon Wood Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Howard Payne (1-7, 1-6) dropped a 53-7 decision at American Southwest Conference rival Texas Lutheran last week as the Yellow Jackets mustered just 78 yards of total offense and yielded 38 points in the second period alone as second-year head coach Braxton Harris’ squad faced a 48-7 deficit at halftime.

“That’s a good TLU team, they’re 5-2 and lost to Hardin-Simmons and Mary Hardin-Baylor, so they’re no slouch in the conference by any means,” said Harris, who served as defensive coordinator at Texas Lutheran before taking the HPU job.

“Through the first quarter we played pretty well with them, it was 10-7 after one quarter,” Harris said. “The defense got a big turnover down by the goal line, which is something we talked about, and the offense did a great job scoring off that. We were right there where we needed to be after the first quarter.

“In the second quarter the wheels fell off a little bit. We had a couple of turnovers that hurt us and the most disappointing thing is that we didn’t respond to those things, we didn’t dig our heels in the ground and get a stop. That’s something we have to do to mature as a football team. Bad things are going to happen during the course of a game, I can guarantee you that, but how we respond to those bad things is what determines the outcome, and that was true Saturday. We reacted to a bad situation instead of responding.”

Southwestern (4-4, 3-4), meanwhile, gave Hardin-Simmons all it could handle last week before the Cowboys eventually secured a 49-35 victory. The Pirates’ option attack on offense, and the play of quarterback Frederick Hover in particular, has given more teams than just HSU fits this season.

“They’re an option team so that’s been a bit of a challenge this week,” Harris said. “It’s not your typical offense, he runs everything. About 95 percent of their offense comes through the quarterback. We’re going to have to do a really good job with assignment football and keep our eyes in the right place. We worked with our kids this week to limit their eye progression, which will help us do our job more consistently.”

Hover has rushed for a team-high 688 yards and 11 touchdowns while completing 85 of 152 passes for 1,243 yards and 11 more scores, as Southwestern averages 30 points and 405 yards — 224 on the ground and 181 through the air — per outing. The Pirates have turned the ball over 20 times this season, however.

Other weapons for Southwestern include Kalon Heim out of the backfield (628 rushing yards, 6 TDs; 8-176, TD receiving) along with receivers Davis Brandenburg (18-188, TD), A.J. Daniels (16-194, 3 TDs), Landry Bray (14-198, TD), Markell Henderson (13-139, 2 TDs) and Ta’Von Gwynn (10-219, 3 TDs).

Howard Payne counters with a defense that is yielding 43 points and 506 yards — 278 passing and 228 rushing — per game with 13 takeaways.

Standouts include Austin Killgore (66 tackles, 6 for loss, 1.5 sacks), Britt Boler (61 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks), Tevin Dawson (45 tackles, 1.5 for loss), Elijah Washington (38 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 FR), Brady Wade (38 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FR), Anthony Lindsey (35 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 1 sack, 2 FRs) and Collin Wright (34 tackles, 14 for loss, 5.5 sacks).

On the flip side of the ball, HPU is generating 17 points and 235 yards — 171 passing and 63 rushing — per game, with 19 turnovers.

Gage McClanahan has connected on 115 of 200 passes for 1,319 yards with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Leading receivers include DunTayviun Gross (42-390, 3 TDs), Jordan Bryant (21-260, 3 TDs), Thomas Williams (14-245, 2 TDs), Eric Haverstock (11-157, TD) and Tariq Gray (11-148), while the top ground gainers are Kaidrion Latson (341 yards, 3 TDs) and Brett Martinez (168 yards, TD).

Defensively, Southwestern gives up 30 points and 349 yards — 256 through the air and 93 on the ground — with 13 takeaways.

Leading the charge are Ben Brockman (61 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT), Aaron Robinson (60 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1 INT), Hayden Smith (53 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 4 sacks) and Joel Hietikko (41 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 INT).

“Defensively, they’re going line up and play man,” Harris said. “They’re going to put seven or eight in the box, so obviously we’re going to have to be able to throw the football. We’ve got some guys in some skill positions that are good play makers and we think it’s a great week for them to stand out and show they can do that. Southwestern is going to run the ball and create havoc, so we have to be able to win one and one match ups.”

Another huge key for the Jackets, according to Harris, is the turnover battle.

“We have to be able to avoid turnovers, that’s a huge piece of the puzzle, and then create turnovers,” Harris said. “We’ve done both of those things at times, but we have to put them all together in one game. That’s something that could give us a real opportunity to win the football game. If it goes the other way, it’s going to be very hard to win, so that’s the key for us.”

As for playing in front of the homecoming crowd, Harris and Yellow Jackets welcome the additional support this week.

“We embrace homecoming because it’s the type of event that makes Howard Payne, Howard Payne,” Harris said. “I think it’s great for these kids to see people who graduated from Howard Payne 50 years ago still come back because they care about Howard Payne. To me this helps our kids see the investment and the decision they’ve made and the relationships that they have here are going to last for 50 years. It helps our kids see this is a 40-year choice, not just a four-year choice. It’s great for them to see and be around people who love Howard Payne University.”