After a trio of near misses in succession, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets are hoping to finally put their losing streak behind them as they welcome the American Southwest Conference rival Sul Ross Lobos at 4 p.m. Saturday for homecoming.
The Yellow Jackets (2-5, 1-5), in the midst of a five-game drought overall, have lost their last three games — to Louisiana College, Texas Lutheran and East Texas Baptist — by an average 8 points.
“You have to take some emotion out of it and look at the facts,” said HPU third-year head coach Braxton Harris. “Our program has not been able to compete with ETBU, TLU and Louisiana College for a while. Are we closing the gap on those teams? Absolutely. Are we improving as a program? Absolutely. Are we better than we were as a program this time a year ago? Absolutely. However, it's not winning and that's what we want to be able to do in those situations. We have to play hard and execute for four quarters. We've done it for about three quarters the last few weeks and we've had one quarter that's hurt us, but we have to put four quarters together this week.
“Part of winning is understanding you can win. The man that thinks he can and the man that thinks he can't are both right. For our kids to be able to see they can win in those situations, that one or two plays makes the difference, we're in control of those things and that's encouraging. They have hope for this week because they can see on film they have opportunities to make those plays.”
Sul Ross (3-4, 3-3) enters the contest having won two of its last three games, with its win streak snapped by Texas Lutheran, 35-6, this past Saturday.
“They're a good football team and a young football team, and with a young football team there's highs and lows and we've experienced that around here,” Harris said of Sul Ross. “We've got to be able to play well early in the ball game Saturday and hopefully get them in a low situation where they don't feel great about their situation. If we allow them to play well throughout the course of the game we're going to be in a dogfight to the end to try and win it. Last year it was a one-point game out in Alpine and we're glad they're coming here.”
The Yellow Jackets will be playing in front of a homecoming crowd, a game each year that Harris relishes.
“Homecoming is always a great time,” Harris said. “The kids see people that love Howard Payne enough to come back and be a part of it and what it meant to them. When you're 18-22 years old you just see the here and now, not what life will be life when you're 40. For them to see that in other people, their love for Howard Payne and being back in Brownwood again, that's encouraging. Sometimes you don't know how good you have it until you see someone else liking what you have.”
Howard Payne heads into the contest averaging 28 points and 357 yards — 207 passing and 150 rushing — per game, with nine turnovers.
Quarterbacks Caleb Estes (101 of 153 for 1,202 yards with 13 TDs, 4 INTs) and McGwire Martin (21 of 36 for 228 yards, 1 TD; 191 rushing yards, 1 TD) are both expected to see time behind center. Leading the way on the ground are Billy Reagins (270 yards, 5 TDs), Cameron Keener (206 yards, 3 TDs), Shannon Warren (121 yards, 2 TDs), Kaidrion Latson (115 yards, TD) and Ryan Hirt (108 yards). Top receiving threats include DunTayviun Gross (36-344, 5 TDs), Jake Parker (21-245, 2 TDs), Thomas Williams (19-379, 4 TDs), Jordan Bryant (16-231, 2 TDs) and Hirt (10-89).
Sul Ross counters with a defense that surrenders 35 points and 444 yards — 253 rushing and 191 passing — per game with 15 takeaways.
Leading the charge are Levon Tarry (61 tackles, 2.5 for loss), Isaiah Jacobs (59 tackles, 2 for loss, 3 INTs), Carter Bates (35 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 1 INT), Cameron Bell (33 tackles, 1 for loss), and Jalen Howard (32 tackles).
"Offensively we have to continue to move the ball and make first downs,” Harris said. “Any time you have the potential to be able to score that gives your whole team hope. The whole team is excited about next series that comes. We have to be able to run football and establish the run early, but also have explosive plays. Last week we had six, so we have to continue to be to grow those things and get better.”
On the flip side, the Yellow Jackets allow 42 points and 485 yards — 264 through the air and 221 on the ground — with just six takeaways.
Standouts include Austin Killgore (61 tackles, 4.5 for loss), Britt Boler (46 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 sack), Zeno Barnum (39 tackles, 1 fumble recovery), Connor Day (31 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery), Dylan Zeno (29 tackles), James Jakubowski (28 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks), Brady Wade (22 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack) and Jarret Brown (20 tackles, 1 for loss)
The Lobos are producing 14 points and 247 yards — 126 passing and 119 rushing — with 13 turnovers.
Williton Grear (666 rushing yards, 4 TDs) anchors the rushing attack while Trey Johns (47 of 91 for 514 yards, 4 TDs, 4 INTs) and Jorge Barrera (28 of 57 for 267 yards, 2 INTs) have shared time at quarterback. Leading receivers include Dre'Chon Moody (28-341, 2 TDs) and Logan Schnautz (11-172).
“Defensively we have to be sound,” Harris said. “They'll run some formations with some tight ends and some wings and the quarterback under center. For us it's all about getting off blocks and making tackles in those situations.”