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Banged-up Columbus Lions play at unbeaten Albany Panthers tonight

Before practice Thursday at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium, Columbus Lions coach Jason Gibson didn't sound like the most confident coach in the world.

"Practice this week has been sort of wishy-washy," said Gibson, whose team plays at the unbeaten Albany Panthers (4-0) tonight at 7:30. "The rain hasn't helped, and we've got people banged up at receiver. (Maurice) Dupree and (London) Crawford both are hurt and will make the trip, but we'll have to see how it goes as to how much they play. (Defensive back/wide receiver) Anthony Merritt's versatility could have to kick in for us again."

Columbus (3-2) is coming off a 75-61 home win over the Louisiana Swashbucklers last weekend in a game that saw the Lions jump out to a 40-18 halftime lead and hold a 75-46 advantage with 6 minutes to go before Louisiana scored the game's final 15 points.

Not finishing strong against the Swashbucklers irked Gibson. To help address his team's defensive shortcomings, the Lions signed defensive back Derek Douglas -- a graduate of Pacelli -- and wideout Vonzell Pittman, who can play defensive back as well. Douglas will make the trip to Albany this week, while Pittman will join the team next week.

"Our defense just hasn't proven themselves yet," Gibson said. "To only be clicking in one or two aspects of the game like we are right now and to be 3-2 is good. We're putting in a new defensive scheme with a lot of rookies, and that takes time. We have a lot of NFL-caliber players, but they're not that experienced, so it takes time to learn things. Albany has a lot of veterans on their roster, and the way they play defense shows it."

The Panthers have the top scoring defense (allowing 33 points per game), pass defense (176 yards/game) and pass defense efficiency (45 percent), so Columbus quarterback Randy Hippeard, who leads the league in completion percentage (63.5 percent), total offense (286 yards/game) and passing touchdowns (33) will be in for a tough challenge tonight.

"Albany's the best defensive team in the league," Gibson said. "It'll be an interesting game since it's the top offense against the top defense, and their offense is last in the league and so is our defense."

Gibson said keeping the ball out of the Panthers' hands is the biggest key to winning. However, even if the Lions can't come away with a win over the Panthers, Gibson said he wants to see a good performance from his team.

"We can't turn the ball over if we want to win," said Gibson. "When (Albany's) defense scores, they can get on a roll and win football games. When their defense doesn't score, they struggle. If we can not turn the ball over and get our defense rocking and rolling, we'll be in good shape. We just want to keep getting better week by week. If our defense can get there in Week 10 or 12, we'll be in good shape. As long as we keep getting better each week, we'll be alright."

Notes: To listen to the game live, go to the Lions' website at www.columbuslions.net and click on the "Listen Live" icon on the right side of the homepage. Hippeard and kicker Trey Crum are the Professional Indoor Football League's Offensive and Special Teams Players of the Week for their performances in the Lions' 75-61 win over Louisiana last week. Albany has started the season 4-0 for the third straight year. After this week, Columbus is off until May 6, when the Lions host Albany. In other PIFL action tonight, the Richmond Raiders (4-1) are at the Louisiana Swashbucklers (1-3), and the Knoxville Nighthawks (0-4) continue to search for their first win, going to Huntsville, Ala., to face the Alabama Hammers (1-3).

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