Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester threw for four touchdowns and 192 yards Saturday in the Albany Civic Center against the Columbus Lions and outscored the league’s top-scoring offense, 57-40.  (Adrian Jenkins/Special to The Herald)

Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester threw for four touchdowns and 192 yards Saturday in the Albany Civic Center against the Columbus Lions and outscored the league’s top-scoring offense, 57-40. (Adrian Jenkins/Special to The Herald)

ALBANY — Levance Richmond’s 50-yard interception return for a touchdown on the game’s first play was a tone-setter in the Albany Panther’s 57-40 win over rival Columbus Saturday.

Richmond had a feeling he would swipe a pass at some point against the PIFL’s leading passer, Columbus quarterback Randy Hippeard, but the first play of the game?

“I knew I was going to make a play eventually, but I didn’t know it was going to come that fast,” said Richmond, who combined with Damian Daniels and Corey Rue to intercept Hippeard three times on the night.

Albany’s defense held Columbus more than 20 points below their season average and it all started with the game’s first pass and Richmond’s return.

“It set the tone of the game,” Albany head coach Lucious Davis said. “Rumor has it, we have a pretty good defense. They stepped up and made some plays for us.”

Richmond fumbled with the ball in the back of the endzone after the pick and the football rolled around for nearly five seconds before he scooped it up and followed a convoy of blockers the other way.

“I was like, ‘Ah, man. Nobody’s going to touch me,’ ” Richmond said.

Richmond continued: “I just went home with it and it opened up for me. I think that ended any hopes they had of momentum. When they beat us, they’re used to playing ahead. We took that from them. We jumped them and made them play from behind.”

The Panthers (5-0) built a 26-3 lead in the first half before Columbus began to chip away at it. The Lions (3-3) cut it to 10 twice but never could stop Albany’s offense when it had to.

After Anthony Merritt’s 1-yard run cut it to 43-33 at the end of the third, Albany answered back with a 7-yard scoring strike from Cecil Lester to former Westover star Antwone Savage, his second touchdown catch of the game, to open up a 50-33 lead with 10:52 to play.

Hippeard threw his third touchdown of the game with 4:17 left to slice the lead back to 10, but the Panthers finished the Lions off with one minute left on Derrick Wimbush’s 11-yard jaunt.

Even though it was a huge win over an in-state rival, Davis said it was just another ‘W’ for the unbeaten Panthers.

“This was just an ordinary game, a regular win,” Davis said. “Granted it’s Columbus, but we’ve still got seven more games to play (in the regular season).”

Daniels, the former Lion turned Panther who spent five years in Columbus, had a little more emotion tied up in the game.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I wanted this one more than any other game this year. We just came out and did what we do. When the ball’s in the air, we made plays on it.”

He added one of the interceptions, his 84th pick of his arena league career, that led to a Panthers score in the first half

Hippeard was intercepted three times and sacked twice.

He threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns after averaging more than six TD passes a game.

Maurice Dupree led the Lions with 94 yards receiving and two touchdowns.

Lester threw for 192 yards and four touchdowns for the Panthers and also scored on a sneak.

Former Albany State star Clenton Rafe added 82 receiving yards and two scores on seven catches. Rue had nine tackles and an interception to lead the Panthers’ defense, which held the Lions to a season low in points.

The Panthers, the only remaining PIFL undefeated team, play the Alabama Hammers Saturday at home in the Civic Center.

In two weeks, the Panthers will travel to Columbus for the second of three regular season games against the Lions. The final Lions-Panthers game will be June 9 in Columbus.