Yellow Jackets shooting for first multi-win campaign since '14

The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets will attempt to end the 2017 football campaign with multiple victories — last accomplished in 2014 — and, on paper, the possibility is strong as the Louisiana College Wildcats invade Gordon Wood Stadium for Saturday’s 1 p.m. American Southwest Conference and season finale.

While Howard Payne (1-8, 1-7) is in the midst of a five-game skid — including last week’s 70-6 shellacking at the hands of Southwestern — Louisiana College (2-7, 1-7) has dropped three in a row, including a 63-46 loss to Belhaven — the only team the Yellow Jackets have defeated this season.

The Wildcats have also given up at least 51 points in each of their last three losses, but the Yellow Jackets have surrendered no fewer than 52 points in any game during their current slump.

“I feel like this is a great opportunity for us,” said HPU first-year head coach Braxton Harris. “This is a big one for us, but we have to be able to come out and compete for four quarters, which we haven’t done very well this year. We’re similar in a lot of areas, but opposite in a lot of areas. Our records are similar but we’re in different stages of a program. They have some older guys on the way out and we have younger guys coming into this thing, so we feel like we have a lot more hope and things to play for than those guys who are getting on a bus and coming from Pineville, Louisiana to Brownwood.

“A win this week and what it will do for our program long term would be huge. It would accelerate the process going into the offseason. When you win, everything feels a little better.”

Quickly reflecting on the loss to Southwestern, a 35-point second-period outburst by the Pirates — who outgained the Yellow Jackets 701 to 114 in total offense — turned a competitive contest into a rout in little more than the blink of an eye.

“We didn’t go out and com pete like we should have, especially earlier in the ball game,” Harris said. “The first quarter it was 14-0 and we were competing and doing some good things. The second quarter the wheels fell off and our mental focus tailed off. We didn’t do things right, didn’t fit things right, turned the football over — all things that are bad in football, and it resulted in a disaster. I wasn’t happy with that but felt we came out in the second half and played a little bit better than we had. All thought goes to back to us continuing the process. We told our kids at halftime they had to continue to work to a standard, that’s what laying the foundation is about this first year.”

Shifting the focus back to Louisiana College, the Wildcats are giving up 45 points and 567 yards — 366 passing and 201 rushing — per game this season. That bodes well for a Howard Payne offense that is generating just 17 points and 271 yards — 172 on the ground and 99 through the air — per game, with 18 turnovers.

“We have to get back to what we do,” Harris said. “Last week we didn’t run the football as effectively as we have been. We feel like there’s some things we can do to take advantage of their defense this week. But we have to get back to our running backs getting their shoulders square and running downhill and taking advantage of things on the perimeter. Their defensive line is a lot of juniors and seniors, and we feel like that is going to be a good challenge for us. We feel like we match up well with those guys with our offensive line. It’s go to come down to if we can win that match up and if we can win the explosive play match up on the perimeter.”

HPU’s offense is led by running back Hunter Batten (764 yards, 6 TDs), with an assist from Brett Martinez (252 yards, 2 TDs) and LeMarcus Harmon (126 yards, TD) out of the backfield. Mitchell Jennings (43 of 119, 550 yards, 4 TDs, 5 INTs) started behind center last week while Jaxson Durham (27 of 58, 207 yards, 4 INTs) led the Yellow Jackets on their only scoring drive. Leading receivers for Howard Payne include Eric Haversack (21-166), Kaidrion Laston (21-105), Edwin Godfrey (10-274, 4 TDs), Justin Barrera (6-15), Chase Eisenmann (5-39), Jordan Lewis (4-30), Batten (3-51) and Jason Murphy (3-49).

Defensive standouts for Louisiana College include Orel Ledet Jr. (76 tackles, three for loss, three interceptions), Ryan DeMattie (75 tackles, 3.5 for loss, two fumble recoveries), Willie Smith (55 tackles, one interception, 18 pass break ups), Julius Johnson (53 tackles, 7.5 for loss, one interception), and Brandon Zimmer (30 tackles, 11 for loss, 5 sacks). The Wildcats have recorded 24 sacks as a team.

Howard Payne’s defense has been gashed for 56 yards and 534 yards — 293 passing and 241 rushing — per contest, with 12 takeaways.

Leading tacklers include Tevin Dawson (60 tackles, 5.5 for loss, one sack, one interception), Austin Kilgore (56 tackles, 5.5 for loss, one sack), Jake Wright (44 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks), Colton Dickerson (38 tackles, 3.5 for loss), Patrick Hunt (25 tackles, three interceptions), Brady Wade (25 tackles, 5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) and Jaylon Jeffrey (12 tackles, seven for loss, 4 sacks).

Louisiana College counters with an offense that produces 35 points and 446 yards — 310 through the air and 136 on the ground — per game, but has coughed up the ball 25 times.

Quarterbacks Wayne Griffin (96 of 189, 1,416 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs) and D’Ondre Joseph (87 of 169, 1,336 yards, 16 TDs, 6 INTs) have shared time behind center, while leading receivers include Shedrick Davis (45-697, 8 TDs), Leondre James (35-515, 7 TDs), Drake Battaglia (30-658, 7 TDs), D.J. Latino (23-255) and Riley DiMaggio (12-206, 4 TDs). Aaron Woods (559 yards, TD) anchors the ground attack.

“(Joseph) hasn’t played the last two games and I don’t know why,” Harris said. “He’s more athletic while the other kid is a freshman who throws the ball well. But my history with Louisiana College is they’re going to throw the football, it’s something they believe in. We just have to make sure we’re able to stop Joseph if he comes into the game because he’s also their second leading rusher. It’s really a tale of two quarterbacks in regard to what they want to be able to do.”

Saturday will also serve as Senior Day at Howard Payne.

“We’ve got five seniors and we want to be able to send them out in the right way,” Harris said. “They’ve persisted and stuck with something a lot of people haven’t, so we want to be able to honor them with our effort this week and thank them for what they’ve done for Yellow Jacket football and Howard Payne University as a whole.”