The opportunity for their first .500 season since 2006 is at stake for the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets who conclude the 2019 football campaign — their third under head coach Braxton Harris — at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium against the American Southwest Conference rival Belhaven Blazers.
“Going 5-5 would be great but the ability to send out our senior class, which has done so much for our program and so much for our university, on a three-game win streak is huge,” Harris said. “We have 12 kids that will be playing in their final game on Saturday, 12 kids that hung in there, believed when no one else believed and stayed loyal to Howard Payne. We feel like we owe it to them to send them out as winners because that's what they are.
“We've done so many things this year that are firsts in a long time — first to win three games in the conference in a long time, first to win four ball games in a long time, and we had a winning record on the road this year at 3-2. That's a tribute to our seniors.”
Howard Payne (4-5, 3-5) is currently in the midst of its second two-game win streak of the season, knocking off Sul Ross, 31-20, for homecoming and going on the road and shutting down Southwestern, 24-16, last week.
“When a team runs the option like they do it definitely presents some problems. That's a team that the last two years we've given up 700 yards and 640 yards to, so our kids felt like they had something to prove and that our program has advanced,” Harris said in regard to the Southwestern contest. “We had to make some mid-game adjustments, but we ran to the football better than they we ever have. Our team as a whole is getting better every week, and on that side of the ball we have two seniors and a junior and everybody else is sophomores. I'm excited to see them have the results they've had the last two weeks for sure.”
On the offensive end, injuries forced several new faces into action and they made the most of their opportunities.
“We don't like to see injuries, but you do like to see new guys step up and make plays,” Harris said. “A sign that we're improving and competing better in this conference is when someone else can step up. He gets an opportunity, everyone believes in him, that kid believes in himself and he goes out and performs.
“Miguel Gutierrez stepped in a did a great job at center for us. We lost some running backs and Tauren Bradley, a freshman who didn't travel the first half of the year, hung in there and did what's right, got some opportunities and had some big carries at the end. Then Kolbi Tate comes in there in the middle of the third quarter and scores 10 points in the fourth quarter to help us win the ball game.”
Belhaven (2-7, 2-6) is coming off just its second win of the season, a 25-6 home triumph over Sul Ross. The only other victory for the Blazers came against McMurry by a 48-16 count.
The Blazers muster just 19 points and 331 yards — 204 through the air and 127 on the ground — per outing, with 13 turnovers on the season.
Quarterbacks Hunter McEachern (136 of 147 for 1,539 yards, 9 TDs, 5 INTs) and Mayowa Asagunla (24 of 49 for 278 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT) have shared time behind center. Leading rushers include Brad Foley (486 yards, 7 TDs), McEachern (236 yards, Asagunla (220 yards, TD) and Kolbe Blunt (179 yards, 2 TDs). Top receivers are Foley (25-244, 2 TDs), LaMarcus Caradine (22-389, 4 TDs), Asagunla (21-124, TD), Joey Walden (17-193), Fabien Williams (15-150), and Blunte (14-119).
“Offensively I think their quarterback is underrated,” Harris said. “He's a really good football player, throws the football really well, and runs it deceptively well. You don't look at him and think he's a runner.”
Belhaven's defense is surrendering 28 points and 379 yards — 232 passing and 146 rushing — per game, with 14 takeaways.
Leading the way defensively are David Lewis (67 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 FR), Connor Fordham (48 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 FR), Justin Percy (46 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 FR), Colton Strain (43 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 FR), and Phazion Locke (40 tackles. 1 INT, 1 FR).
“They play one of the best boxes as far as interior linemen and linebackers, I would say they are one of the top three or four in the conference,” Harris said. “If you look at what they're doing overall, they're playing really good defense.
“We're going to have our work cut out for us being able to throw the ball on the perimeter. We have to win one-on-one matchups and we feel we have an opportunity to do that and have some explosive plays. Plus we still have to be able to run the football, control the time of possession, first downs and the momentum of the game.”
Behind a multitude a skill players, the Yellow Jackets are averaging 28 and 375 yards — 233 passing and 142 rushing — per outing, with 11 turnovers on the season.
Quarterbacks Caleb Estes (116 of 178 for 1,380 yards, 13 TDs, 5 INTs) and McGwire Martin (39 of 61 for 588 yards, 3 TDs) are battling injuries and Tate (5 of 10 for 110 yards, 1 TD) made his debut last week.
The running back-by-committee features Billy Reagins (302 yards, 6 TDs), Cameron Keener (241 yards, 3 TDs), Kaidrion Latson (141 yards, 2 TDs), Shannon Warren (121 yards, 2 TDs), Ryan Hurt (108 yards), and Bradley (56 yards, 2 TDs).
Leading receivers include DunTayviun Gross (49-550, 7 TDs), Jake Parker (30-408, 2 TDs), Thomas Williams (26-564, 5 TDs), Jordan Bryant (19-239, 2 TDs) and Eric Haverstock (13-118, TD).
The HPU defense yields 37 points and 447 yards — 230 passing and 217 rushing — per game with 13 takeaways, including a season-high five last week at Southwestern. During the Yellow Jackets' current two-game win streak, they are allowing 18 points per game on average.
Defensive standouts include Austin Killgore (73 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks), Britt Boler (60 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FR), Zeno Barnum (47 tackles, 1 INT), James Jakubowski (38 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks), Brady Wade (27 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 2 sacks), Connor Day (36 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2 INTs), and Dylan Zeno (36 tackles, 1 FR).
“Ever since the break we've come up with our goals it takes to win and in our wins we've accomplished at least four of the six,” Harris said. “Week 11 football is about can we get our kids ready to go and be mentally ready for the opportunity we have. I know this is the most excited it's been in this locker room for Week 11 in a long time. Our kids are excited about playing football and excited about the direction of the program.”