ABILENE — Trailing 17-14 at halftime, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets erupted for three touchdowns in the third quarter en route to a 42-point second half and a 56-37 victory over the McMurry War Hawks to begin American Southwest Conference football action.
Under the guidance of third-year head coach Braxton Harris the Yellow Jackets (2-0, 1-0) defeated McMurry (0-2, 0-1) for the second year in a row — on the heels of last year's 37-31 double overtime victory at a stormy Gordon Wood Stadium — and are off to their best start since a 3-0 beginning to the 2014 campaign.
The Yellow Jackets compiled 640 yards of total offense as reigning ASC Offensive Player of the Week Caleb Estes — a sophomore making just his second start at quarterback — improved upon his debut numbers, completing 26 of 31 passes for 388 yards with five touchdowns, while rushing for 11 yards and another score.
DunTayviun Gross hauled in seven receptions for 148 yards and scored twice while Thomas Williams caught five passes for 111 yards with a trip to the end zone. Jordan Bryant added four grabs for 75 yards and a touchdown and Eric Haverstock pulled down four receptions for 18 yards and found the end zone as well.
HPU's 252-yard rushing attack featured 114 yards and a touchdown from Billy Reagins, 86 yards and a score from Cameron Keener, 33 yards from Ryan Hirt, 19 from Gross and 12 from Kaidrion Latson. The Yellow Jackets averaged 5.7 yards per carry on their 44 attempts.
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets gave up 404 yards with 313 coming the through the air. McMurry finished with 91 rushing yards on 27 carries.
Britt Boler led HPU with 10 tackles followed by seven each from Zeno Barnum and Austin Killgore. Michael Davis and James Jakubowski recorded sacks for the Yellow Jacket defense.
Down three points at the break, Howard Payne took the lead for good, 21-17, just 2:46 into the second half when Keener scored on a 2-yard run to cap an eight-play, 71-yard trek.
At the 6:29 mark of the third quarter, the Yellow Jackets extended the advantage to 28-17 on a 27-yard scoring strike from Estes to Gross. The two-play, 37-yard drive began following a 13-yard McMurry punt.
Just 3:24 later, Howard Payne was back on the board as a 66-yard toss from Estes to Williams pushed the advantage to 35-17, where it remained the rest of the quarter. Just like the second, the Yellow Jackets' third scoring drive of the half also consisted of two snaps.
In the fourth period, the two teams traded a total of six touchdowns.
McMurry closed to within 35-23 on a a 4-yard run by Leo Brownfield, but the Yellow Jackets answered with an 18-yard scoring toss from Estes to Gross.
The War Hawks reduced the deficit to 42-31 with 8:29 left on an 80-yard connection from Xavier Alexander — who was 13 of 31 for 313 yards and three scores — to Eriel Dorsey — who grabbed four receptions for 147 yards. Just 1:13 later, Howard Payne answered as Reagins scored on a 23-yard run to give HPU a 49-31 cushion.
Kameron Session returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a McMurry touchdown, as the War Hawks trailed 49-37 with 7:16 to go. But Howard Payne put the final touches on the scoring at the 3:41 mark, capping a five-play, 52-yard trek with a 43-yard strike from Estes to Bryant.
McMurry opened the scoring in the first on an 83-yard toss from Alexander to Dee Robinson — who caught five passes for 90 yards and led the War Hawks with 51 rushing yards — but missed the extra point. A 1-yard dive by Estes, coupled with an extra point from Blake Phipps, gave HPU its first lead, 7-6, with 4:04 left in the first period.
A 22-yard field goal by Jared Mendoza put McMurry back in front, 9-7, just 58 seconds into the second period. Haverstock later caught a 1-yard pass from Estes as the Yellow Jackets regained a 14-9 lead with 9:38 left before the break.
The War Hawks tallied the final points of the first half, however, as a 5-yard toss from Alexander to Moise Fokomla but Howard Payne in a 17-14 hole at the 4:32 mark of the second period.
The Yellow Jackets play their home opener at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium against the ASC rival and ninth-ranked Hardin-Simmons Cowboys.