Off to their best start in five years, the undefeated Howard Payne Yellow Jackets open the home portion of their 2019 football schedule by hosting the seventh-ranked Hardin-Simmons Cowboys in the second American Southwest Conference outing for both squads.

Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium.

The Yellow Jackets (2-0, 1-0) have knocked off Austin College, 48-34, and McMurry, 56-37, while Hardin-Simmons (2-0, 1-0) has handed out defeats to Sul Ross, 64-0, and Trinity, 16-10.

“If you look back in history, Hardin-Simmons vs. Howard Payne was always a big game,” said HPU third-year head coach Braxton Harris. “If you look back to the '90s, that was the game that decided who won the conference championship. I'd be willing to bet it's been a long time since Howard Payne has been undefeated and Hardin-Simmons has been undefeated and were playing each other. To me, it's exciting to start getting these opportunities to go play games like this.

“The kids are excited to get measure ourselves against the No. 7 team in the nation and see where we stand. The greatest thing about this conference is you know where you stand real quick because of the schedule every week. That school up north is one we want to rival and be able to go beat so we have to build a program that can go do that. Our kids are excited to be able to show what they can do.”

In the Yellow Jackets' victory at McMurry last week, Howard Payne erased a 17-14 halftime deficit by outscoring the War Hawks 21-0 in the third period en route to a six-touchdown, 42-point second half.

“It didn't feel like in the first half that we came out focused and ready to play,” Harris said. “It felt like we allowed some outside stimulus to be able to influence us. We have to be stronger and better than that, and we learned from it. We came out in the second half and decided to just worry about what we can control, worry about we can do. When we do that, we're a pretty good football team. I was proud of our kids for being able to recognize we're not playing at the level we want to play, we're not focused at the level we need to be focused, but we were able to come out in the second half and really turn it on.”

The Yellow Jackets finished with 640 yards of total offense — 388 passing and 252 rushing — and sophomore quarterback Caleb Estes again earned ASC Offensive Player of the Week honors, accounting for six more touchdowns with five coming through the air.

For the season, Howard Payne is averaging 52 points and 582 yards — 353 passing and 229 rushing — per outing, with no turnovers. Estes has completed 52 of 64 passes for 706 yards with 10 touchdowns, while rushing for 53 yards and two more scores. Leading receivers include DunTayviun Gross (12-212, 3 TDs), Jordan Bryant (10-145, 2 TDs), Thomas Williams (9-207, 3 TDs), Eric Haverstock (6-29, TD), Kaidrion Latson (4-10), and Jake Parker (3-54, TD), as 11 Yellow Jackets have at least one reception. The ground game is anchored by Billy Reagins (192 yards, TD), Cameron Keener (91 yards, TD), and Latson (75 yards, TD).

“It's about players not plays, and you're seeing that come to fruition on the field,” Harris said. “Most of those guys last year were playing for us in the exact same spots. Now they're a year older, a year stronger, a year more mature and that makes a huge difference. (Offensive coordinator) Coach (Luke) Wagner is doing a great job of balancing the offense and spreading the football around. When you rush the ball for 250 yards that's a pretty good day at the office. We're excited about that, plus we've also been able to throw it for over 300 yards.”

Defensively, Howard Payne is yielding 35 points and 412 yards — 289 through the air and 123 on the ground — per game, with one takeaway. Standouts include Austin Killgore (16 tackles), Britt Boler (13 tackles), Jarett Brown (9 tackles), Brady Wade (9 tackles), Connor Day (8 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack), James Jakubowski (8 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack), Zeno Barnum (7 tackles), and Dylan Zeno (7 tackles).

“If you look at the stats, there's some really good numbers in there,” Harris said. “Last week McMurry has just 10 first downs and two were on penalties, so if you hold someone to eight first downs it's usually a pretty good day. We only gave up 91 yards rushing, they were 3 of 14 on third downs, so all those were good numbers. But we can't give up explosive plays. Right now that's the thing we've been giving up. We have to be able to stay mature, focused and locked in our assignments so we can eliminate those explosive plays. I like how hard our kids are playing, they're running to the football really well, now we have to be able to put it together for four quarters.”

Hardin-Simmons enters the contest producing 40 points and 496 yards — 282 rushing and 213 passing — per game with five turnovers. Coleman graduates Jaquan Hemphill (239 yards, TD) and Bryson Hammonds (153 yards, 2 TDs) anchor the ground game while quarterback Brennen Wooten has connected on 32 of 49 passes for 380 yards with four touchdowns and two picks. Leading receivers include Kevi Evans (10-183, 4 TDs), Matthew Sandoval (10-109), Breon Simmons (5-41), Rae Millsap (3-39), and Brownwood's Hayden Day (3-27).

“We have our hands full, but we have to be able to slow down the run,” Harris said. “They run the football and have for years and do as good a job as anybody. We have to be able to match the physicality with which they play. Last year they were the more physical team than us and when that happens you miss getting off blocks, you miss tackles. Jaquan Hemphill is one of the best running backs in the nation, if not the best, and we can't tackle him with one guy. We have to get multiple guys to the pile, swarm to the football. If we can do that, then we have to be able to control the explosive play and make them earn their points, not give up a big play on a second down.”

The Cowboys defense will present the greatest challenge to the Yellow Jackets offense to date. Hardin-Simmons is giving up just 5 points and 149 yards — 116 passing and 33 rushing — on average, with four takeaways for the year. Top defenders include Matt Girard (13 tackles), Cameron Hanna (11 tackles), Jeffrey McCutcheon (9 tackles, INT), Hunter Creasey (8 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 FR), Terrell Franklin (8 tackles), Ross Errington (7 tackles, 3 TFL), and Dedrick Strambler (7 tackles).

“Caleb's doing such a good job of taking care of the football and our completion percentage is through the roof, so he's taking what a defense is giving him and not trying to force the football,” Harris said. “When you get into a big ball game with a nationally-ranked team coming to town, you have to fight the urge to go make something happen. You want to throw the deep ball, but the deep ball might be a 3-yard pass and they catch it and go score. We have to be able to do those things, along with establish the run. We have to be able to run the football just like we have the last two weeks and that will allow us to throw the football on the perimeter.”