The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets won their season opener for the first time since 2014 and are now seeking their second consecutive 1-0 start in American Southwest Conference football action.
The Yellow Jackets (1-0) are on the road for the second week in a row as they visit the McMurry War Hawks (0-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the ASC opener for both squads. HPU knocked off McMurry, 37-31, in double overtime last year at Gordon Wood Stadium.
Howard Payne is coming off a 48-34 victory at Austin College, a game in which the Yellow Jackets never trailed and led by as many as 28 points, 41-13, early in the second half.
“When you win the first one there's a big sigh of relief that you get that first victory under your belt,” said HPU third-year head coach Braxton Harris. “For us, going back to what we talked about before, we're trying to divide the season into 10 one-week seasons. It's exciting to see our kids work for something, make decisions for something, and then see those results turn out.”
Sophomore quarterback Caleb Estes, making his first start, earned ASC Offensive Player of the Week honors as he completed 26 of 33 passes for 318 yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for 52 yards and another score.
“He was responsible for six touchdowns and out of all the decisions he made there were two that were questionable,” Harris said of Estes. “He took care of the football, he got it out of his hand and delivered the football, and he was calm in the storm. A big part of that was we were able to run the ball effectively and that makes a big difference in the passing game. It also shows the talent we have at receiver and we'll try and get the ball in their hands every single week. But it comes back to Caleb making good decisions distributing the football. He's worked his tail off and he knows one football game doesn't define him, and he's going to continue to get better.”
Overall, the Yellow Jackets generated 524 total yards — 318 through the air and 206 on the ground — and did not commit a turnover. A year ago, Howard Payne gave the ball away 26 times and averaged just 16.5 points and 272 yards per game.
Ten Yellow Jackets caught at least one pass, led by Jordan Bryant’s six grabs for 70 yards and a trip to the end zone. DunTayviun Gross added five catches for 64 yards and a score, Thomas Williams caught four passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns and Jake Parker finished with two catches for 48 yards, including a touchdown.
On the ground, Billy Reagins rushed for a team-high 78 yards followed by 63 yards and a touchdown from Kaidrion Latson.
“There were a lot of good things that happened, and one of the main things is we had 10 guys catch the football,” Harris said. “That shows you the depth we have at those positions to be able to throw it around.”
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets allowed 420 yards – 265 passing and 155 rushing – but recorded seven tackles for loss, one sack by Connor Day and the game’s only takeaway, an interception by Corey Perkins. Linebacker Austin Killgore led Howard Payne with nine tackles followed by cornerback Jarrett Brown with eight and six apiece from ends Brady Wade and James Jakubowski.
McMurry began its season Sept. 5 with a 41-10 road loss to Trinity, but Harris expects the War Hawks will be able to provide a stern test for Howard Payne.
“They have a first-year head coach (former HPU assistant Jordan Neal) trying to build a program just like we are here,” Harris said. “You see the kids are very athletic, they play very hard, they're just young in some places and we've been there and we know what that looks like. This is going to be their home opener, optimism and excitement is in the air and there's no question in my mind that they circled this game on their schedule and feel like it's an opportunity to get a win. We're going to get their absolute best effort so we have to come in and make sure we're ready to play at a high level. We have to better than we were last week, and that's how we're trying to push our kids.”
McMurry finished with 271 yards against Trinity, 199 through the air to just 72 rushing yards on 39 carries – an average of 1.8 yards per tote. Quarterback Xavier Alexander completed 15 of 30 passes for 199 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Eriel Dorsey (4-62), Kevin Hurley (2-87, TD), Moise Fokomia (2-25), Dee Robinson (2-6), Davian Smith (2-4) and Montrel Motton (1-15) caught passes, while leading rushers were Smith (13-34), Robinson (5-28) and Leo Brownfield (6-21).
“They have a receiver that was second-team all-conference in Eriel Dorsey that's coming back for his senior year,” Harris said. “He's dynamic, a transfer from Louisiana Tech and the kid can play. They have some very talented skill guys so the concern is if you let those guys get some catches and you miss some tackles that leads to explosive plays and creates confidence. Those are the things we have to be able to compete against and fend off.”
Defensively, McMurry surrendered 453 yards — 287 passing and 166 rushing — with one interception, one sack and five tackles for loss. Leading tacklers included Ka'Shaun Jnofinn, Josh Smith and Cahlyl Rossin with eight apiece, Christopher Baker with seven, and
Willie Crawford and Dakota Russell-David — who recorded the interception – with six each.
“On defense they move around a lot,” Harris said. “They're going to give us a four-man front with two high safeties to try and keep the ball in front of them in some places, so we have to be able to take what they give us and not force things, whether it's running or screens or the quick game or the vertical passing game. We have to take care of the football like we did last week, and distribution of the football for us has to be good again.”
The last time the Yellow Jackets won a season opener, they went on to a 3-0 start and a 4-6 overall record.