Howard Payne head coach Braxton Harris was hopeful his third season would be the one in which the football program took a dramatic step forward — and the Yellow Jackets delivered.
After winning a total of three games the previous four years, the Yellow Jackets wrapped up the 2019 campaign Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium with their third win in a row, 17-3 over Belhaven, to secure a 5-5 record — the first .500 season for Howard Payne since 2006.
Yielding an average of 18 points in their previous two wins, the Yellow Jacket defense turned their performance up a notch Saturday as Howard Payne surrendered its fewest points in a game since a 7-0 victory over Southern Nazarene to open the 2006 season.
Though the Yellow Jackets (5-5, 4-5) gave up 422 total yards — 221 passing and 201 rushing — HPU for the second week in a row forced five turnovers, with one returned for a touchdown, to go along with a blocked punt that set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Playing with their third and fourth string quarterbacks, Kolbi Tate and Nick Stolt, the Yellow Jackets were limited to just 201 yards of total offense — 128 rushing and 73 passing.
Knotted at 3 with 1:42 left in the first half, Belhaven (2-8, 2-7) faced a fourth-and-4 from the HPU 44. Andrew Norton's punt was blocked by Jake Parker, and Jordan Davison scooped up the loose ball at the Blazer 40.
A 13-yard pass from Tate to Parker, followed by a 12-yard carry from Parker out of the wildcat formation moved the ball to the Belhaven 15. Stolt followed with runs of 9 and 2 yards to advance to the Blazer 4. There, Stolt connected with DunTayviun Gross for a 4-yard scoring toss with 33 seconds left in the half, staking Howard Payne to a 10-3 lead.
On Belhaven's drive prior to the blocked punt, Howard Payne turned away the Blazers at the Jacket 5 with an interception by Jarret Brown.
The Yellow Jackets' first points of the game were the result of a takeaway as Stephen Darden intercepted Belhaven's Hunter McEachern and returned the ball to the Blazer 31. HPU wasn't able to pick up a first down, but Blake Phipps came on and booted a 43-yard field goal to give the Yellow Jackets a 3-0 lead with 8:33 left in the opening period.
McEachern also lost a fumble that Brady Wade recovered, after a sack by Michael Davis, with 2:28 left in the opening period, and Dylan Zeno picked off McEachern at the HPU 35 with 8:29 remaining in the third quarter.
A takeaway also sealed the victory for Howard Payne early in the fourth quarter. Facing a second-and-7 from its own 27 with 13:14 remaining, Belhaven running back Brad Foley coughed up the ball, which Connor Day scooped up and returned for a touchdown, increasing the Yellow Jackets' lead to 17-3.
Belhaven's only points were the result of a 25-yard field goal by Cade Ganey with 9:30 left in the first half, which capped a 14-play, 77-yard drive that stalled at the HPU 7.
Austin Killgore led the HPU defense with 12 tackles trailed by eight each from Day, Zeno, and Zeno Barnum, and seven apiece from Britt Boler and James Jakubowski. Davis tallied two sacks and two tackles for loss, while Zachary Eskridge chipped in a sack as well.
Stolt completed 9 of 17 passes for 48 yards and a touchdown for Howard Payne, and rushed for a team-best 66 yards. Tate was 3 for 6 for 25 yards with an interception.
Gross finished with five catches for 21 yards and a score and Thomas Williams grabbed two receptions for 38 yards. Parker caught two passes for 7 yards but rushed for 25. Gross also rushed for 20 yards and Tauren Bradley chipped in 18 yards on the ground.
Belhaven's McEachern connected on 15 of 34 passes for 216 yards with three picks, Kolbe Blunt rushed for a team-best 54 yards and Fabien Williams grabbed four catches totaling 97 yards.