Panthers running back Derrick Wimbush climbs over a Nighthawks defender to get into the end zone during the first half of Saturday’s game in the Albany Civic Center. Wimbush finished with 40 yards and a score on eight carries.
ALBANY — Well, there’s some good news and some good news for the Albany Panthers.
1) They clinched the home field for the first round of the playoffs.
2) When they get to the playoffs, they won’t have to play Knoxville.
That’s right, Knoxville. You know, the Nighthawks, the worst team in the Professional Indoor Football League.
Yeah, those guys.
Yup, the same Knoxville that lost to Albany 59-10 earlier this year.
That Knoxville, the 1-9 Hard-Knocks Knoxville Nighthawks (whew, say that 10 times real fast).
No one on the Panthers (9-1) is knocking them now — not after Saturday night’s near disaster.
The Panthers, playing their final home game of the regular season are still unbeaten in the Good Life City, but it took an escape act, two touchdowns in the final 29 seconds of the game and a highlight film play by linebacker Larry Edwards to lift Albany to a 74-64 win.
“I knew it was our chance to put the game away, and big players make big plays,’’ said Edwards, who picked up on onside kick at Knoxville’s 8-yard-line (remember, they kick off from the goal line in arena football) and busted his way through for a touchdown with 23 seconds left to end the drama.
The lead changed hands 18 times before Albany took a 60-58 lead with 3:55 left when Cecil Lester, who threw eight touchdown passes, connected with Clenton Rafe for a 7-yard TD. Lester appeared to put the game away when he ran for a 1-yard TD with 29 seconds left, but Knoxville QB Russell Hill, who completed 18-of-38 for 265 yards and six TDs, hit Ryan Schuck with a 25-yard TD pass on the next play from scrimmage with 22 seconds left to cut the lead to 67-64. Hill’s two-point conversion pass was short as Schuck trapped the ball, then Edwards scored on the onside kick to put the game away.
Edwards went bowling into the end zone, and the Panthers put playoff tickets on sale.
Rafe caught nine passes for 90 yards and three touchdowns, and he wasn’t even the leading receiver for the Panthers. Former Westover star Antwone Savage, who predicted earlier in the week that the Panthers would win the final three games of the season, caught eight for 146 yards and three TDs.
Lester was stopped once all night on a controversial interception in the end zone (it appeared Savage made the catch on the first play of the second half for the score and then the ball was stripped from him). Lester completed 24-of-41 for 311 yards.
“I knew they weren’t going to come in here and lay down just because of what happened the last time we played them,’’ said Lester, who was all but unstoppable. “Every team is going to give us their best shot. We expected that.’’
Maybe, but the crowd of 5,453 at the Albany Civic Center was shocked when Knoxville took a 25-21 lead after the first quarter. The Nighthawks scored more points (11) in the first eight minutes than they scored all night against the Panthers in Tennessee.
“Their quarterback was on,’’ said Panthers coach Lucious Davis, who said earlier in the week he was worried about Knoxville, which had lost its previous two games by a total of only five points.
“I knew they would not be the same team we beat before,’’ Davis said after the game. “We just couldn’t get to (Hill). They did a good job protecting him. You have to give them credit.’’
Fortunately, for the Panthers, Lester was on all night, too.
“We finally got a stop on defense (midway in the fourth when Hill fumbled the ball on a fourth-and-five play) and our offense kept going,’’ Davis said. “Our offense has really played well the last two games. We just have to play better defense.’’