ALBANY, Ga. — Antwone Savage didn’t want his career to end, and Darnell Kennedy felt like he had something to prove.
Neither could have scripted Saturday night’s PIFL playoff opener against Columbus any better.
Kennedy, the Panthers’ second-string QB who got the start because starter Cecil Lester was out with a sprained MCL, threw six touchdowns — four of them to Savage — and ran for another to lead the Panthers to a 60-36 victory.
The win advances the reigning league champion Panthers (11-2) to the inaugural PIFL Championship game Saturday in Albany against either Richmond or Louisiana; those teams play each other Monday in the other semifinal game. The win also gave the Panthers all the bragging rights in the bitter in-state rivalry, which went Albany’s way three of the four times this season.
“They told us that they were the only team that could beat us,” said Savage, the former Westover star who leads the Panthers in receiving but has announced that this is his last arena league season. “If you want to know who the best team in Georgia this year is, it’s the Albany Panthers.”
No one was more vindicated than Kennedy, who had been under center for both of the Panthers’ losses this season, including Albany’s first loss May 6 in Columbus. Kennedy was 12-for-20 for 169 yards and six TDs and scampered for a 3-yard score that slammed the door shut on the game. But more importantly the former South Georgia Wildcats and Georgia Force QB didn’t have any turnovers.
“I felt snakebit the last couple of times I played,” said Kennedy, who also threw TDs to former ASU star Clenton Rafe and former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts.
Kennedy then added: “It feels good to come out here and get the win, and not only get the win but win easily. I think we did a pretty good job on offense. I was glad we were able to sustain (our offense) and pull it out.”
Kennedy lifted the Panthers to their second-largest margin of victory this season and gave himself plenty of confidence along the way.
“He played great,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “I told him that the team that doesn’t turn the ball over would win.”
The Lions (6-7) turned the ball over just once — but it was a big one. It happened on the opening offensive play of the game for Columbus when Anton Ceasar sacked Randy Hippeard and caused a fumble, which was picked up by Tito Hannah. Hippeard, who leads the league in passing, broke the thumb on his throwing hand on the play and finished the game with just 178 yards passing and two TDs.
“He tried to tough through it as long as he could, and maybe I shouldn’t have put him in that predicament even though he didn’t want to come out of the game,” Lions coach Jason Gibson said.
Lions backup QB London Crawford came in during the closing minutes and completed 3-of-3 passes for 27 yards.
It was during those final minutes of the game when both coaches took issue with some of the opposing team’s conduct. The Lions, who racked up five penalties in the final quarter, got caught up in a few scuffles with Panthers players as the clock was winding down, and Davis called the penalties “illegal play.”
Gibson said there was nothing to the penalties.
“That’s just players,” Gibson said. “That stuff is irrelevant when it is all said and done. It’s just a football game in the grand scheme of things.”
But then Gibson questioned Davis’ motives for going for a 2-point conversion with 2:45 left and the Panthers already leading by 22 points (Albany converted the 2-point conversion on a pass from Kennedy to Aaron Wheeler, and the Lions picked up a personal foul on the same play).
“To go for two with 30 seconds left, that is fine by me,” Gibson said. “We will remember that. That’s what classless organizations do. They want to sit there and say we were classless last year for passing out (championship) rings. But that is fine. It’s irrelevant. If they need that for their ego to make them feel better, whatever. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just indoor football. And you can print that exactly how I said it.”
The 2-point conversion was the conclusion of a fourth quarter during which Albany outscored the Lions, 16-0.
Albany jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the opening possession of the game when Savage caught a 33-yard TD pass from Kennedy with 11:42 left in the quarter, and then Panthers kicker Ryan Gates knocked through a 44-yard field goal with 7:39 left in the quarter to give Albany its first double-digit lead of the evening.
The lead was cut to 10-7 two minutes later when Columbus’ Crawford punched in a 1-yard rushing TD.
Albany outscored Columbus, 28-16, the rest of the half thanks to three more TD passes from Kennedy (19- and 30-yard tosses to Savage and a 3-yard pass to Rafe) and an 8-yard rushing TD from Derrick Wimbush.
The Panthers’ offense seemed to be clicking on all cylinders, and nobody was happier than Davis.
“It feels really good, considering that (the Lions) were saying our offense wasn’t that good and that we had one of the worst offenses in the league,” Davis said. “If feels good to beat them.”
Columbus scored on the opening play of the second half on a 15-yard pass from Hippeard to Crawford to pull to within eight, giving Gibson some hope of a comeback.
“I thought when we came out the second half with the ball and then we got a stop and pulled to within eight points, that we were in good shape,” Gibson said.
But the Panthers shut them down the rest of the way, outscoring the Lions, 22-6, during the final 28 minutes.
“I wanted to go out on top,” Savage said. “I want to go all the way to the last game of the season. In that last game, my whole mission is to win another championship.”
And now the Panthers, and Savage, will get their chance to do just that.
g NOTES: Four Panthers were named to the PIFL’s First Team before Saturday’s game. Representing the first-place Panthers were Hannah OL Demetrice Jackson, LB Larry Edwards and defensive back Damian Daniels. Three Panthers made the Second Team: Savage, Wimbush and DL Chauncey Debose.