The Columbus Lions start possibly the most critical stretch of their 2012 season tonight in Knoxville, Tenn., where the Lions (4-3) face the Nighthawks (1-6) in the first of a three-game road swing that will have Columbus on the road for the rest of May.
Kickoff at the James White Memorial Civic Center is scheduled for 7 p.m., and Lions coach Jason Gibson knows his team must win tonight to keep pace in the Professional Indoor Football League standings.
"This is probably the most important stretch of our season," Gibson said in a new release this week. "Our club is battle-tested, and I think we are fully prepared for the challenges that await us."
Gibson is right that his team has been tested so far this season. In its first seven games, Columbus has outscored its opponents by a total of only eight points. Last week, Columbus got a 54-yard field goal from Trey Crum as time expired to pull out a 58-56 win over the previously unbeaten Albany Panthers. That win moved Columbus into third place in the PIFL standings, one game behind the Richmond Raiders (5-2) and two behind Albany (6-1).
Despite the magnitude of the win, there were some things didn't please Gibson. The Lions held a 55-41 lead with 1:31 to go but gave up two touchdowns and an uno in just 73 seconds.
"Who cares whether we win by 30 points or one point as long as we win," Gibson said after the game. "But it shouldn't have been that close. All we had to do was get one first down after their first touchdown, and we could've ran out the clock."
Another major issue for the Lions against Albany was pass protection. The Panthers sacked Hippeard seven times for a total of 41 yards in losses and had three consecutive sacks on the same drive. Granted, Albany leads the league with 23 quarterback sacks, but Gibson said there is a lot of room for improvement.
"Overall, I'd rate our game as a 'B,'" Gibson said. "We had a lot of pass protection issues in the second half. I'm not sure what the problem was, but we need to get it fixed.
"We had four possessions in a row where we didn't score a touchdown, and you can't do that in arena football and expect to win. But we still managed to do it anyway. It goes to show you that if you don't turn the ball over and can keep the other team from scoring touchdowns, you're going to have a chance to win."
Knoxville earned its first win of the season last week, taking home a 64-61 double-overtime victory over the Alabama Hammers. Before the win, the Nighthawks had been getting manhandled by most of the league, sitting last in scoring offense (27.6 points per game) and fifth in scoring defense (56.6 ppg, better than only the 57.6 given up by the Lions).
"We know we're going to have to be ready," Gibson said. "We're going to live (the Albany win) up for a little while, but then we're going to have to be ready for Knoxville."
The teams first met March 17 in a game at the Columbus Civic Center that the Lions won, 64-59. Hippeard went 24-for-31 for 191 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception. Columbus had a short field much of the night, but that didn't stop Maurice Dupree from making seven catches for 57 yards and four touchdowns. Anthony Merritt had eight receptions for 52 yards, London Crawford pitched in five catches for 52 yards, and Gerald Gales had four catches for 30 yards and a score.
After tonight's game, Columbus goes to Richmond, Va., for a rematch with the Raiders on May 19. Following an off week, the Lions head to Lake Charles, La., to play the Louisiana Swashbucklers on June 2. The Lions' next home game is set for June 9 against Albany.
Notes: To listen to the game, go to the Lions' website at www.columbuslions.net and click on the "Listen Live" link on the right-hand side of the home page. Coverage of the game will begin at 6:55 p.m. Knoxville wide receiver Ryan Schuck was the PIFL's Offensive Player of the Week after catching eight passes for 144 yards and five touchdowns against Alabama. Hippeard leads the league in touchdowns (42), passing yards (1,942) and is completing more than 64 percent of his passes. Dupree is tops in the PIFL in scoring (146 points), receptions (61) and touchdowns (24). Crawford is second in the league in receptions (53), and Gales is fourth with 47.