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Perfect Panthers head to Tenn. to face winless Nighthawks

KNOXVILLE — The Knoxville Nighthawks have opened up their inaugural season with three straight losses, have been outscored, 214-130, and are still trying to establish consistency on a young team.

And Knoxville’s growing pains are about to get a lot more painful.

At 3-0, the reigning league champion Albany Panthers roll into Knoxville as the only undefeated team in the PIFL and are the overwhelming favorites in tonight’s game.

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WHO: Albany Panthers (3-0) at Knoxville Nighthawks (0-3).

WHAT: Panthers’ fourth game of season, first in franchise history against Knoxville.

WHEN: 7 p.m. today.

WHERE: Knoxville, Tenn.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

LIVE UPDATES: Log on to: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.

The Nighthawks are coming off an 80-29 loss to Richmond — yes, that’s the same Richmond team Albany held to 28 points in its season-opening win — and the Panthers have every intention of flexing their muscles against a Knoxville team that is still trying to grow its fan base.

Before their home opener two weeks ago against Richmond, the Nighthawks promised the first 3,000 fans a free 2012 magnet schedule, but just 1,462 showed up to watch the home team lose by 51 points.

It’s been a rough start for the league’s only expansion team, and Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester only wants to make it rougher.

“We just need to make sure to take advantage of any chances we have to (take an early lead),” Lester said. “Most teams that are down on their season, once you get on top of them they tend to fold.”

Panthers wideout Antwone Savage, who leads the team with five touchdown catches, knows how big of an upset it would be to lose at Knoxville, which motivates the former Westover star.

“We are supposed to win, and everybody out here is trying to prove a point,” Savage said. “We aren’t just out here so we can say we are doing something. If we go up there and play around, they are liable to beat us.”

While the Nighthawks keep losing by more and more points each week, the Panthers are coming off their best win of the season after beating Louisiana, 52-38, two weeks ago before having a bye last week.

Despite everything seemingly stacked in the Panthers’ favor heading into tonight’s game, Albany coach Lucious Davis said there is one part of Knoxville’s lineup that scares him — receiver Ryan McDaniel, who is Knoxville’s best offensive weapon and has already caught eight touchdowns. He leads the league with 11.2 catches per game.

“We need to make sure we cover him, disguise coverages and then fly to the ball,” Davis said. “That’s the one thing that kind of scares me about them.”

The Nighthawks have used both Tony Colston and Russell Hill under center, but Colston has seen most of the snaps and is the league’s third-leading passer, averaging 197.7 yards per game.

Knoxville’s points come through the air, so don’t expect the Nighthawks, who have rushed the ball just 19 times for 34 yards this season, to run the ball very often.

Knoxville is last in the league in both offense and defense, but Davis has watched plenty of film and believes the Nighthawks aren’t as bad as their record shows.

“Their defense is solid, but they have miscues up front offensively,” Davis said. “That’s where we can take advantage of them.”

The Panthers have been winning battles on the offensive and defensive lines all season. Lester has only been sacked two times this year — which leads the league — and the defensive line has brought the opposing quarterback down four times.

Still, the Panthers aren’t taking anything for granted.

“We can’t underestimate them or disrespect them at all,” Lester said. “They are looking to get a win off of us to turn their season around, so we need to keep our head on a swivel.

“We take it one game at a time. We don’t really look at records. Everybody is a faceless opponent, so we are looking at it like everybody is a challenge. We can’t underestimate anybody.”