Upstart Albany hands Columbus its first loss
By MIKE PHILLIPS
ALBANY, Ga. — The Columbus Lions dropped Saturday’s contest 54-41 to the Albany Panthers in a game where coach Jason Gibson didn’t know what to expect.
“We didn’t have any film on them, so we were guessing. I had no idea what they were going to do,” Gibson said. “We‘ll have film on them next time.
“Our quarterback didn’t play very well, but they’ve got a good team. They have a lot of af2 guys. They’ve got good players.”
Albany held Columbus quarterback Todd Spitzer to 159 yards (16-for-40) and two interceptions. Spitzer threw six touchdowns last week, but threw only one touchdown pass all night, and that didn’t come until there was 4:28 left in the game. His 17-yard touchdown toss to Gerald Gates closed the gap to 41-33.
Columbus beat the Louisiana Swashbucklers, who are the defending champs, last week 88-32.
“They said they were the best team in the league,” Panthers receiver Clenton Rafe said. “And we just gave them a butt-whooping. For us, the sky’s the limit.”
Could be. No one knows just how good the Panthers might be, but they looked like anything but a team that was thrown together at the last minute on opening night.
“Coach Lucious Davis did a marvelous job,” said Panther general manager Will Carter, who started putting the team together in January. “Coach Davis and I both have experience and knew we could do it (put a team together). I’m excited. It feels good to get the first one under your belt.”
The Panthers, who have seven players from the South Georgia Wildcats who folded last season, grabbed a 14-1 lead quickly and never trailed. But they had to hang on after some late dramatics from the Lions, who closed to 48-41 when Melvin Parris scored on a 1-yard run with 43 seconds left, and Columbus grabbed an onside kick.
But LeVance Richmond, who just joined the Panthers this week, picked off a pass with 15 seconds left, and, after trying to kill the clock, Panthers QB Cecil Lester tossed a 45-yard touchdown to John Harris as the clock ran out to put an exclamation point to the new team’s beginning.
“Coach told me to just throw the ball in the stands on the last play, but I couldn’t do that,” said Lester, a longtime backup.
Lester completed 22 of 37 passes for 311 yards and threw six touchdown passes, including four in the fourth quarter. Two of those were to Harris, who also caught a 25-yarder for a touchdown. He found Rafe early and often, and Rafe finished with a monster night, catching nine passes for 130 yards and three TDs (36, 26 and 20-yards).
“Me and Cecil have been around for a while,” Rafe said. “When we hook up it’s like magic.”
It was almost a magical night for Lester, who had waited six years to get his chance to lead a team.
“I got banged up, but felt strong in the fourth quarter,” said Lester, who was the backup QB for the Wildcats. “We just kind of put everything together, and when we get all the pieces in place we will be even better.”
It took Lester only three plays to find the end zone — with a 36-yard TD to Rafe. And after the Panthers scored a defensive touchdown when Kevin Campbell came up with a big sack and Alton Pettway grabbed the fumble and ran it in five yards, Lester finished the half in a flurry, throwing two touchdown passes in the final 27 seconds, hitting Rafe with a 26-yarder with 27 seconds left, and connecting with Curtis Antwonis with 1.8 seconds left to take a 28-11 lead.
“I’m proud of them,” said Davis, who had been an assistant coach for six years before taking over the Panthers.
“I just want to thank God for this opportunity. I am blessed. I was very surprised by the way they responded tonight. We can get a lot better.”