The second season of Howard Payne football under head coach Braxton Harris comes to a conclusion at noon Saturday at Louisiana College, where the Yellow Jackets continue their quest for their elusive second win of the 2018 campaign.
The Yellow Jackets (1-8, 1-7), in the midst of a seven-game slump, are coming off a 54-17 homecoming loss to Southwestern, while Louisiana College (4-5, 4-4) was mauled by No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor, 80-7, last week.
“It’s the last game of the year and when you don’t have any playoff hopes it’s always a toss up game,” Harris said. “It’s always about who is going to show up, who is going to have the right mindset at noon Saturday to be able to go win a game. We’re both in the same boat, but they’re a little bit older of a football team.
“For us being a 1-8 football team, we came out Monday had the absolute best Monday practice we’ve had. Wednesday’s was great as well, and everything says we shouldn’t be having those right now. I’m really proud of the kids and the coaching staff because they know we’re playing for more than a regular season game, we’re playing to build a program. They have the same vision of where we want this thing to go and obviously we’re not there yet, but we still know where we’re going. We get one more swing at it this season and we’re going to take that swing this weekend.”
Looking back on last week’s loss to Southwestern, some opportunities again slipped HPU’s fingertips that proved costly.
“We had some opportunities to keep it within striking distance in the first half,” Harris said, as HPU trailed 40-17 at the break. “In the second quarter if we score we make the score 17-10, but we fumbled on the 1 yard line. Then a questionable pitch went 96 yards for a touchdown and that’s where the wheels fell off. It was similar to the game against Texas Lutheran. When bad things happen we have to persevere and get the momentum back and we didn’t and that’s what cost us the game.”
Among the biggest positives last week, Gage McClanahan set a new HPU record with 39 completions in 62 attempts during the contest.
“Gage did a good job distributing the football, but with 62 passes obviously you’d like more than 17 points,” Harris said. “We had some critical errors that hurts us in some spots, but throwing the ball 62 times, that’s probably where we are as a team right now.”
Howard Payne heads into the season finale averaging 17 points and 255 yards — 188 through the air and 67 on the ground — with 22 turnovers.
McClanahan has completed 154 of 262 passes for 1,637 yards with 10 touchdowns 15 interceptions. Leading receivers include DunTayviun Gross (55-541, 4 TDs), Jordan Bryant (33-351, 3 TDs), Eric Haverstock (18-189, TD), Thomas Williams (16-258, 2 TD) and Tariq Gray (13-157). The ground game is anchored by Kaidrion Latson (362 yards, 3 TDs) and Brett
Martinez (215 yards, TD).
The Louisiana College defense is yielding 41 points and 407 yards — 290 rushing and 198 passing — per contest, with 22 takeaways. Standouts include Orel Ledet Jr. (92 tackles, 5 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 INT), Julius Johnson (76 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 1 FR), Terrance Garrett Jr. (46 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Jacob Jefferson (46 tackles, 3 for loss).
“Defensively they have good team speed, really fast defensive linemen that are gap control guys and we have to get them running side to side and see if we can wear them down, tire them out a little,” Harris said. “Then we have to be able to make some plays downfield and stretch their defense.”
On the flip side, HPU is surrendering 44 points and 519 yards — 271 through the air and 248 on the ground — with 14 takeaways. Leading the charge are Austin Killgore (73 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks), Britt Boler (65 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks), Tevin Dawson (51 tackles, 1.5 for loss), Anthony Lindsey (42 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 2 FR), Elijah Washington (41 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FR), Brady Wade (39 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FR) and Collin Wright (39 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks).
Louisiana College’s offense generates 26 points and 296 yards — 247 passing and 49 rushing — per game, but has coughed up the ball 27 times.
Mason Jordan (1,561 yards, 16 TDs, 10 INTs) and Skyler Bonneau (537 yards, 6 TDs, 4 INTs) have both seen time at quarterback, while primary receiving threats are Drake Battaglia (43-692, 7 TDs), JoJo Robinson (34-590, 6 TDs), Leondre James (31-433, 6 TDs) and Zion Williams (16-207, 3 TDs). Leading rushers are Aaron Woods (268 yards, 4 TDs) and Melvin Young III (117 yards, TD).
“They’re athletic on the perimeter and like to throw the ball around and get it to their guys in space and let them make plays,” Harris said. “The challenge is the same as last week and it has nothing to with Louisiana College and everything to do with us.”
Reflecting on his second season at HPU and looking ahead to his third, Harris said, “Anytime you’re 1-8 it’s not what you wanted or how you started the year seeing things. The biggest takeaway is that we’re athletically better in spots and that gives us the opportunity to compete in ball games, where last year we didn’t compete. Going forward, the biggest thing is we have to be able to learn how to win, and to do that you have to hate to lose. We have to create that within our players and the culture of our program.”
Another key factor looking forward is retention.
“Retention is everything at any level of college football,” Harris said. “It’s the reason we were able to compete more this year than last year, because we had older upperclassmen. For this program to have a chance to be successful down the road we have to graduate more than five seniors. We have to have classes of seniors well into the double digits to have a chance to compete in the American Southwest Conference. Retention is a huge piece of the puzzle and it’s not just a football coach’s issue, we have to do a great job as university and a community, and we’ve had that, and we need to continue to have everybody be a piece of the puzzle.”