ALBANY — The Albany Panthers’ quarterback carousel continues to turn.
Cecil Lester took the Panthers to the top of the league with an outstanding season before a knee injury sidelined him, opening the door for third-string quarterback Chris Mitchell to lead Albany to a victory that clinched the league’s No. 1 seed Saturday in Columbus.
Now it might be up to Darnell Kennedy to finish the job.
Kennedy will get the start in Saturday’s regular-season finale against Richmond, and he might be called to lead the Panthers through the PIFL playoffs if Lester is still out.
And Kennedy says he is ready for the challenge.
“I want to go out in this game that coach has allowed me to start and show the team that I can put some points on the board,” Kennedy said. “They can trust me to lead them to win football games if something happens to Cecil. It just so happened that something happened to Cecil last week, so this game means a little bit more now.”
It means everything to Kennedy, who was under center for the Panthers’ only loss this season and feels like he has something to prove to his teammates.
“I started playing (better) in the fourth quarter against Columbus,” Kennedy said, referring to Albany’s 58-56 loss to Columbus on May 6 when he got the start because Lester injured his knee in the previous game. “That’s when I started (playing better), and now it’s time to finish it off.”
Kennedy was initially added to the Panthers’ roster in early May after Lester hyper-extended his left knee against Alabama.
When Panthers coach Lucious Davis learned the severity of Lester’s injury, he immediately called Kennedy, who is a former South Georgia Wildcats quarterback and had recently been released from the AFL’s Georgia Force. Kennedy, a 2001 Alabama State grad who played in the Canadian Football League after college, jumped at the chance to play under Davis again.
He came out a little rusty in his start against Columbus, and the Lions jumped out to a 29-17 halftime lead and held onto that lead until the fourth quarter, which is when Kennedy found his groove and threw four of his five touchdowns to put the Panthers in front.
A last-second field goal by the Lions thwarted Kennedy’s comeback, but Davis said Kennedy proved himself that game.
“He is a really good quarterback, and we know he can play,” Davis said. “The last game that we lost was more so on the coach. I didn’t give us a chance. After watching the film two or three times, I didn’t give us a chance ... I didn’t give him any time to throw the ball or any plays to work with, so we know what he can do. We know he can play.”
Kennedy’s stint as the starting quarterback lasted just one game with Lester able to return to the lineup, and Kennedy has sat patiently on the sidelines for the past month waiting for another opportunity.
That opportunity would have come Saturday in Columbus when Lester reinjured his knee early in the fourth quarter. Kennedy, however, wasn’t at the game because of a prior commitment, and Mitchell was called upon to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, which clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the Panthers.
Davis said he decided to go with Kennedy in Saturday’s game against Richmond because of his “veteran experience,” but wide receiver Antwone Savage said he would be happy with any of the quarterbacks on Albany’s roster.
“I’ve got faith in any of the quarterbacks,” said Savage, who leads the Panthers in receiving. “Just like (Saturday in Columbus) when Chris came in and played good. If Darnell would have had to come in, I know Darnell would have played good. I played with Darnell (with the Wildcats) and I know what kind of quarterback he is.”
Davis added that Lester was ruled out for Saturday’s game in Richmond by doctors, but the veteran quarterback could still come back for the playoffs.
Lester is 10-0 this season as a starter and has thrown for 47 touchdowns, 2,202 yards and 11 interceptions and has a completion percentage of 54.4.
GOING OUT WITH A BANG: Savage, a former star at Westover and Oklahoma, told The Herald on Wednesday that he is calling it quits after this season.
But before he goes, the seven-year veteran is giving arena football fans quite a show.
He is second in the league in receiving with 20 touchdowns and 773 yards — but he might have had his most dazzling catches Saturday in Columbus when he made two spectacular touchdown catches in the fourth quarter.
“This was going to be my last game in the (Columbus) Civic Center, so I wanted to make it spectacular,” Savage said. “After this season, I am done. This is it.”
Savage’s first TD grab from Mitchell came with 12:55 left in the game and gave the Panthers their first lead since it was 8-7 early in the first quarter.
He slipped between a pair of Lion defenders and caught the 17-yard TD while laying down in the back of the end zone — a first in his long football career.
“I was running a corner route, and I couldn’t get over the top of him,” Savage said. “I remember slipping, and I looked up as I was falling and the ball was in the air. It hung up there for a while, but as I was laying on the ground I was able to use my elbow to prop up off the ground and slide up. I just stuck my hands up and caught it.”
Savage’s second TD grab, this one from 19 yards out, put the Panthers in front for good with 5:09 left. Mitchell floated the pass over Savage’s head in the corner of the end zone, and Savage made a catch reminiscent of David Tyree’s catch from Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLII when Tyree pinned the ball against his helmet as he fell to the ground.
“I remember sticking both hands up, but when I got hit the right hand slipped off and I just had it stuck to my helmet with my left hand,” Savage said.
Davis said he wasn’t surprised at all by Savage’s performance.
“He has been doing that pretty much all year,” Davis said. “He is a very good player. He is consistent and just makes the plays. He’s not flashy at all. He just gets the job done.”