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Panthers punish Nighthawks, move to perfect 4-0

KNOXVILLE — Lucious Davis wasn’t nervous, and Cecil Lester wasn’t scared.

They were just ready to pounce.

The undefeated Panthers went into the second quarter against winless Knoxville down by three points, but they emerged from Saturday night’s game with a 59-10 victory to stay on top of the PIFL standings.

“We’ve learned to adjust and not get worried,” said Lester, who led the Panthers with five touchdown passes. “The one thing we can take from this game is to keep playing hard and to play through the end of the game.”

Once the Panthers got things going in the second quarter, they never took their foot of the gas. Albany entered the fourth period with a 27-10 lead against the 0-4 Nighthawks, then the Panthers outscored Knoxville, 32-0, in the final 15 minutes to easily move to 4-0 overall.

“We just started playing together,” said Davis, who is in his third year as coach of the Panthers. “At times, we weren’t executing. That’s the main thing. When we execute, we are a good team.”

The Panthers went into halftime with just a nine-point lead, but Davis said he came out with a plan — to stick defensive back Levance Richmond on the other side of the ball and let the playmaker from Southern Mississippi go to work.

Richmond opened up the third quarter with a rushing touchdown and then caught a laser from Lester with 1:00 left in the game to put the Panthers on top by an insurmountable 48 points.

“That was something we have been working on for two years,” Davis said about moving Richmond to offense. “We saw an opportunity, we put him in and he made a play.”

Everyone it seemed, was making plays for the Panthers on Saturday.

Lester threw two touchdown passes to former Westover star Antwone Savage, who now leads the team with seven scores, and one TD pass to Americus-Sumter grad John Harris, while placekicker Geoff Boyer was 6-for-6 on PATs, He also hit his only field goal attempt and nailed a season-high five unos.

Just about any Panther who touched the ball was putting up points, including offensive lineman Aaron Wheeler, who snagged his first TD catch of the season, and safety Damian Daniels, who returned an onside kick for a score.

It was a good day to be a Panther.

After the final TD of the game, Boyer put the icing on the cake with a drop-kick extra point and his fifth uno.

“When we do things like that, it lets you know we are having fun,” Lester said.

Albany stayed ahead of the Richmond Raiders (4-1) in league standings, but the Raiders kept the pressure on the Panthers with a win Saturday night against Alabama. Columbus, which the Panthers will host Saturday at the Albany Civic Center, improved to 3-2 and stayed in third place with a win against Louisiana on Saturday.

But everybody is looking up at the defending champion Panthers, who scored on the first play of scrimmage Saturday on a 30-yard pass from Lester to Savage.

The Nighthawks answered on their first possession with a 1-yard TD run from LaMarcus Thompson, but that was the only time Knoxville would find the end zone all night. Placekicker Alex Walls, who kicked for the South Georgia Wildcats before they folded after the 2009 season, nailed a 37-yard field goal with 3:30 left in the quarter to give the Nighthawks their only lead of the game.

Boyer, who has been the league’s special teams player of the week twice this season and should be a shoo-in this week for the award, opened the second quarter with a field goal and then booted in the uno to give Albany an 11-10 lead.

Former Columbus star Ryan Babb picked off his first pass in a Panthers uniform with five minutes left in the half, which set up Lester’s TD pass to Harris.

The Panthers scored just once in the third quarter when Richmond lined up as a receiver and took an end-around in for the score as any hopes Knoxville had of winning its first game in franchise history got slimmer as the fourth quarter wore on.

Wheeler, who is a tackle on a Panthers’ offensive line that has allowed just two sacks through four games, opened up the fourth quarter with a leaping, one-handed catch. Daniels, who also got his third interception of the season earlier in the game, followed Wheeler’s TD with an onside-kick recovery that he took to the house. The Panthers finished up their scoring with Lester TD passes to Savage and Richmond.

Albany will be at home for its next two games, including a 7:30 p.m. game Saturday against rival Columbus.

Minutes after blowing out Knoxville, Davis’ thoughts were already on Saturday’s matchup in the Civic Center.

“They are a very good team coming in,” Davis said. “We have to get better. With the way we played (Saturday) night, we wouldn’t beat Columbus.”