Panthers avenge only loss, wrap up PIFL’s No. 1 seed

Panthers receiver Antwone Savage tried to shake free from a Columbus defender during Saturday’s game. (Columbus Ledger-Enquirer/Special to The Herald)

Panthers receiver Antwone Savage tried to shake free from a Columbus defender during Saturday’s game. (Columbus Ledger-Enquirer/Special to The Herald)

COLUMBUS — Veterans like Cecil Lester and Damian Daniels have had their share of highlight-reel plays and MVP-like performances in the storied history of the Albany Panthers’ bitter rivalry with the Columbus Lions.

A new hero was born Saturday night in the latest installment of the PIFL’s best rivalry.

Panthers backup quarterback Chris Mitchell came off the bench after Lester went down with an injury early in the fourth quarter and scored four TDs to lead Albany to a 57-54 come-from-behind win in the Columbus Civic Center.

The victory avenged Albany’s only loss of the season — a 58-56 loss May 6 in Columbus — and gave the Panthers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

“He stepped up and made a bunch of good plays,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said about Mitchell, who ran for two TDs and threw for another two in the fourth quarter.

“After the game, I couldn’t say anything to him except for, ‘great job.’ I gave him the game ball. His play was just self explanatory. He stepped up and made the right throws and the right reads.”

Albany plays Richmond in next week’s final regular season game, but the outcome will have no implication on the postseason.

The Panthers (10-1), who have now won four in a row since that loss last month in Columbus, are guaranteed the No. 1 seed.

“That’s what we have been playing for,” Davis said. “Now we just have to play. We have to protect (home-field advantage) and do what we do best ... win.”

The Panthers, who trailed 33-15 at halftime, were down 34-29 when Mitchell relieved Lester in the fourth period.

Lester was hit in his already-injured left knee on a late hit and was forced to leave the game.

Mitchell immediately found former Westover star Antwone Savage in the end zone for a 17-yard score to put the Panthers up, 36-34.

The Lions answered with a 35-yard pass from Randy Hippeard to Maurice Dupree, putting Columbus back up, 41-36.

Mitchell ran in from five-yards out for his second touchdown, and Ryan Gates’ uno put the Panthers up 43-41 with 9:18 remaining in the contest.

Hippeard scored again with 7:40 remaining to send Columbus back ahead, 48-43.

Mitchell once again found Savage for a 19-yard score with 5:09 remaining to put the Panthers up, 50-48.

Trailing by two points, Columbus drove to the Panther 10-yard line in the final two minutes, but Hippeard’s pass on 4th-and-3 fell incomplete.

Mitchell’s 2-yard sweep with 24 seconds put the game out of reach.

Columbus added a touchdown on the final play when Hippeard found London Crawford from 15 yards out for the final score. The Lions’ two point conversion fell short.

Columbus scored on its opening drive and squandered a chance to go up 14-0 following a 48-yard interception return by Cortez Stubbs to the Panther 2-yard line. Two plays later, Hippeard fumbled attempting to dive in for the score.

The fumble was recovered by Daniels, a former star defender for the Lions, who returned it 36 yards to the Lions 14-yard line.

Lester capped a penalty-filled drive by finding Antwon Cutts for a 9-yard scoring pass to tie the game, 7-7. Gates’ uno gave the Panthers an 8-7 lead heading into the second period.

The teams traded scores early in the second quarter.

Crawford caught a Hippeard pass to put the Lions up 15-8 following Trey Crum’s PAT and uno.

Lester hit Cutts again from 22-yards out to tie the contest at 15-15 with 10:37 remaining in the half.

Columbus added 18 unanswered points to take a 33-15 halftime lead.

Albany Herald sports writer John Millikan and Columbus Ledger sports writer Brian Dansby contributed to this report