Yellow Jackets denied first multi-win season since 2014

Trailing by just two points, 33-31, and with possession of the ball at the Louisiana College 29 facing a fourth-and-1, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets appeared to be in strong contention for their first multi-victory season since 2014.

But a failed fourth-down conversion began a string of events that resulted in Howard Payne allowing four consecutive touchdowns and falling in a 30-point hole before Louisiana College eventually settled for a 61-38 victory in the regular-season finale for both teams Saturday at Gordon Wood Stadium.

“Things got out of hand a little bit in the fourth quarter, but there were times where got down close and had to kick a field goal instead of a scoring a touchdown, then we got a fourth and goal and couldn’t get any points, and we had a fake punt that came really close but we came a half yard short,” said Howard Payne first-year head coach Braxton Harris, whose team ended the season with a 1-9 record and 1-8 mark against American Southwest Conference foes. “Football is a game of moments and when the moment comes you have to make a play in that moment. We didn’t make those plays today and that’s why Louisiana College won. But I have great confidence the next time we are in those moments, because of experiences like this, we’re going to make those plays.”

After the failed HPU fourth-down try, Louisiana College (3-7, 2-7) traveled 71 yards in six plays with Aaron Woods scoring on a 1-yard dive to extend the lead to 40-31 at 6:50 of the third period.

Howard Payne’s next possession reached the Louisiana College 3 where it stalled, then the Yellow Jackets missed a 20-yard field goal attempt that would have shaved the deficit to six points.

Five plays later, Louisiana College capped an 8-yard scoring drive with a 27-yard scoring toss from Wayne Griffin to Leondre James, and suddenly Howard Payne faced a 47-31 deficit at 2:27 of the third.

Facing a fourth-and-10 at the Louisiana College 22 on its next drive, HPU was unable to pick up the first down.

HPU’s next possession featured a fake punt from its own 29 that come up a yard short, and Louisiana College was back in the end zone three plays later as Griffin’s 8-yard run stretched the advantage to 54-31 with 5:24 left.

The next Yellow Jackets’ possession lasted just one play as quarterback Mitchell Jennings was intercepted. Four plays later and Griffin connected with Shedrick Davis on a 27-yard scoring toss for a 61-31 cushion.

Howard Payne refused to quit, however, and travelled 69 yards in 10 plays on its final possession as Hunter Batten — who rushed for 197 yards — scored on a 1-yard dive with 5 seconds left for the final 23-point margin.

“I’m proud of the way the kids came out today and fought,” Harris said. “That last drive, the game was out of reach but that group of guys found a way to go out and finish.

“There’s a lot of reasons these kids could have came out here and not played well. They could have just said ‘let’s get this over with’ and ride off into the sunset, but they were very focused today and all week. They were hungry to learn and as focused today as they were in Week 1.”

The Yellow Jackets owned a 21-13 lead early in the second period, but Louisiana College rallied for a 33-24 halftime lead.

Trailing 7-0, HPU pulled even on a 67-yard touchdown run by Batten. On the verge of taking their first lead, Jennings had a batted pass picked off and returned 90 yards for a Louisiana College touchdown by Joshua Pickett.

Down 13-7, the Yellow Jackets capped a seven-play, 33-yard drive with a 6-yard scoring toss from Jennings for Eric Haverstock — one of his six catches for 77 yards — and Blake Phipps booted the extra point to give HPU a 14-13 lead with 2:17 left in the opening stanza.

Just 33 seconds into the second period, Jennings connected with Brett Martinez on a 23-yard screen pass for a touchdown and eight-point advantage.

Louisiana College fired back with Griffin touchdown tosses for 16 yards to Drake Battaglia and 27 yards to D.J. Latino to regain a 27-21 edge.

Phipps booted a field goal to close the gap to 27-24 at 6:24 of the second quarter, while Curtis Sebren nailed kicks of 49 and 32 yards to stake Louisiana College to a nine-point halftime lead.

Haverstock caught a 8-yard pass from Jennings just 3:50 after halftime to bring the Yellow Jackets within two points, but Howard Payne got no closer.

The Yellow Jackets finished with 500 yards of offense — 293 rushing and 207 passing — with a pair of turnovers, while allowing 552 yards — 377 through the air and 175 on the ground — with two takeaways.

Along with Batten’s 197 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, Jennings threw for 207 yards and three scores.

Defensivekly, Lucas Steinkamp tallied nine tackles, Colton Dickerson, James Benson and Austin Kilgore added seven each and Jorden Smith and Tevin Dawson intercepted passes.

For Louisiana College, Griffin threw for 377 yards and four scores, Battlaglia rushed for 69 yards and Davis caught nine passes for 154 yards.

Saturday’s game concluded the career of five Yellow Jackets — seniors Justin Barrera, Caisson Montieth, Patrick Hunt, Abner Reyes and Cyle Johnson.

“The seniors didn’t make it about themselves this year,” Harris said. “Some of those guys took different roles, nobody wants to be a backup, nobody dreams of that for their senior season, but that’s the role they were dealt and they didn’t gripe or complain. They encouraged guys and knew it was bigger than themselves. I can’t thank them enough for what they did for this program, and it’s their program because they laid the foundation. I can’t tell you how proud I am to be the head coach of the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets and those young men.”