The first half of the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets' football season didn't finish the way they envisioned, but head coach Braxton Harris' squad is eager for a fresh start as they host the Texas Lutheran Bulldogs at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium.
“We're 2-3 at the break, but we had an opportunity to be 3-2 at the break and we missed that opportunity,” Harris said. “Now this is a new opportunity for us. Never before since we've been here have we had the opportunities that we have right now before us as a football program. There's guys who have come before this group that have worked their tails off that didn't have the opportunity this group has to go win football games. We want our kids and coaches and everyone in the program to see this as a gift. When you receive a gift you're excited about it and thankful for it and we want to make sure our kids play that way.”
The first test for Howard Payne (2-3, 1-3) in the second half of its schedule will likely be its toughest in red-hot Texas Lutheran (4-1, 4-0), whose wins include a 38-27 triumph at No. 17 Hardin-Simmons on Oct. 5.
“When you look at the last five ball games, we feel like we have a chance to win,” Harris said. “But it's the American Southwest Conference, it's the toughest conference there is, so we have to a long way to go but it's exciting to see where we can go these last five weeks.
“Texas Lutheran, their defense is playing incredibly well and has 18 turnovers in five ball games. They've got 10 turnovers in the last two ball games. When you get five turnovers in a ball game, it's tough for the other team to win, plain and simple. That's what they did against both Hardin-Simmons and Louisiana College.”
The Bulldogs are yielding just 19 points and 345 yards — 197 passing and 148 rushing — to go along with their 10 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries and four defensive touchdowns.
Derek Dunn (39 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 4 sacks) leads the charge for the Bulldogs along with Keyshawn Holman (34 tackles, 2 for loss), DaKwa Davis (29 tackles, 3 for loss) and James Bell (28 tackles). Daniel Enriquez has picked off three passes and Kedrick Ward has two interceptions, while Jackson Worley has recorded 3.5 sacks and Manny Longoria has contributed three sacks.
“Turnovers are earned they're not given, we understand that, but we feel like on offense if we take care of the football it will give us a chance to go compete,” Harris said. “You take away those turnovers against Hardin-Simmons and Louisiana College and those are totally different games. The last two weeks, we've focused on ball security and turnovers. We just have to take what they give us and not get frustrated by them trying to keep things in front of them in spots.”
Howard Payne, which has committed seven turnovers on the season, is averaging 29 points and 383 yards — 236 passing and 147 rushing — per outing.
Quarterback Caleb Estes has completed 94 of 137 passes for 1,158 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. Leading receivers include DunTayviun Gross (28-288, 5 TDs), Thomas Williams (14-314, 4 TDs), Jordan Bryant (14-222, 2 TD), and Jake Parker (13-150, TD). HPU has used a backfield by committee for the most part with Cameron Keener (210 yards, 3 TDs), Billy Reagins (192 yards, TD), Kaidrion Latson (110 yards, TD), Ryan Hirt (98 yards), and Shannon Warren (82 yards, TD) contributing at various points.
The TLU offense is generating 36 points and 404 yards – 261 rushing and 143 passing – per game with just four turnovers on the season, all fumbles.
Quarterback Wade Freeman has connected on 52 of 74 passes for 628 yards with six touchdowns, while rushing for 331 yards and four more scores. Austin Matthews (347 yards, 4 TDs), Chris Monroe (284 yards, 3 TDs), and Ian Leslie (267 yards, 1 TD) are also weapons out of the backfield while Mason Perkins (20-263, TD) and C.J. Romero (15-226, 5 TDs) have been the primary receiving targets.
“Their quarterback is dynamic with the ball in his hands so you have to make sure you account for him in all places,” Harris said. “He's always scary and can always score from any place on the field. They do a great job running the football, but the quarterback is the guy you always have to account for.”
The Yellow Jackets counter with a defense that has surrendered 45 points and 482 yards — 278 passing and 204 rushing — per outing, with five takeaways on the season.
Standouts include linebackers Austin Killgore (32 tackles, 1.5 for loss), Britt Boler (26 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack), and Connor Day (26 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 2 INTs), secondary members Dylan Zeno (25 tackles) and Zeno Barnum (20 tackles), and end James Jakubowski (17 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2 sacks).
“Defensively we have to be a little bit more aggressive and make plays happen,” Harris said. “We can't just sit back and let things come to us, we have to run to the football, play fast and force turnovers.
“We told our kids we have to win the turnover battle, we can't just tie. The offense can't not turn the ball over and then the defense doesn't get any turnovers, we have to win that battle. If we do that all the other things it takes to win a football game — time of possession, first downs, win the fourth quarter, explosive plays, all those things — if you win the turnover battle, it allows to the opportunity to win all those other areas.”