Filling in for injured starting QB Cecil Lester, the Panthers’ Darnell Kennedy nearly pulled off the win Saturday against Richmond after a last-minute TD to Clenton Rafe that gave the Panthers the lead. But the Raiders kicked a last-second field goal to hand Albany its second tough loss of the season, 67-66. (Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch/Special to The Herald)
BY VIC DORR JR./RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH
RICHMOND, Va. — The Panthers wanted momentum. The Raiders wanted to get even.
In the end, Richmond was the only team that got its wish, sending Albany to just its second loss of the season Saturday night — and in a fashion that was equally as brutal as the first one.
The Raiders, who will be seeded No. 2 when the PIFL playoffs start next week, upended the No. 1 seed Panthers, 67-66, on a last-second field that was eerily similar to the way in which Albany lost its only other game of the season back on May 6 against Columbus, which nailed a 54-yarder as time expired to ruin an unbeaten season.
The Lions’ Trey Crum kicked that one, while Saturday’s hero for the Raiders was T.C. Stevens, who booted a 27-yarder with no time left to turn around an otherwise dreary performance Saturday by the Richmond kicker.
The game, which was the regular-season finale for both teams, may have been a preview of the PIFL Championship game. Albany and Richmond finished with identical 10-2 records and split their two-game regular-season series as the Raiders avenged a 40-28 loss in the March 17 season opener for both teams in what seems like eons ago at this point.
Stevens earned sweet atonement with his game-winning kick because — up until that moment — he had struggled mightily. He missed three extra points and had a fourth blocked.
“I think I probably came into the game a little cold,” Stevens said. “I probably didn’t do a very good job of making sure I was loose and warmed up beforehand.”
He saluted his teammates for offering consistent support while he struggled.
“These guys deserve all the credit,” he said. “They had my back every step of the way. They were there to pick me up after every miss. I just wanted to go out there and make (the last kick) to say thanks for everything everybody did for me all night long.”
Panthers coach Lucious Davis was unable to be reached after the loss, which was — in the grand scheme of the postseason picture — meaningless to a degree. Albany, the defending league champions, entered the game having already locked up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which will begin next week against either Louisiana or Columbus at the Albany Civic Center.
The victory will also not affect the Raiders’ position in the upcoming PIFL playoffs. PIFL tiebreaker procedures place significant emphasis on strength of schedule, and the Panthers hold the edge. Richmond played the PIFL’s weakest teams, Alabama and Knoxville, three times apiece.
The Raiders will begin their playoff run at home June 25 against either Louisiana or Columbus.
But Raiders players were happy to get a win against one of only two teams to beat them this season.
The Panthers “were the only team we didn’t have a win against,” Stevens said. “It’s nice to go into the playoffs knowing that we’ve beaten every team in the league and knowing that we can do it again.”
Quarterback Antwon Young led the Raiders with another prolific performance, throwing for four touchdowns and rushing for three more.
Albany, meanwhile, arrived at the Coliseum without its optimum lineup. Quarterback Cecil Lester, who has thrown for 47 touchdowns and rushed for five in 2012, did not dress because of a lingering knee problem. Darnell Kennedy, a sixth-year player from Alabama State, started in Lester’s place.
Kennedy proved to be a high-risk/high-reward option. He passed for seven touchdowns, including four in the first half, and delivered five scoring strikes to former Albany State star WR Clenton Rafe — the last of which came with a minute to play and gave Albany a 65-64 lead.
Davis, however, opted to go for two to make it a three-point lead — rather than take the easy PAT and hope for an uno — and it backfired. Kennedy threw a pick that was nearly returned for the one-point equalizer by the Raiders’ defense. Albany ended up getting its uno to go ahead, 66-64, moments later but it left the door open for one final drive by Richmond that set up Stevens’ heroics.
Former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts scored twice in the game, including on a 45-yard bomb from Kennedy late in the back-and-forth, see-saw game.
Herald sports editor Danny Aller contributed to this report