In his two starts this season, Panthers backup quarterback Darnell Kennedy has thrown 17 touchdowns. (Herald file photo)
WHO: Richmond Raiders (11-2) at Albany Panthers (11-2).
WHAT: Inaugural PIFL Championship game.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Albany Civic Center.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
LIVE UPDATES: Log on to: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
TICKETS: $10 in advance; $15 on game day; available at Civic Center box office or by calling (229) 317-7201.
ALBANY — Albany Panthers head coach Lucious Davis is tired of talking about it, mostly because the decision keeps getting tougher each week.
Davis has had to answer questions about the starting quarterback position for almost a month since undefeated starter Cecil Lester went down with a knee injury against Columbus on June 9. Since then, Darnell Kennedy has come in and performed admirably in Lester’s absence, leading the Panthers (11-2) to a 1-1 record as a starter and an invite to Saturday’s inaugural; PIFL title game at home against the Richmond Raiders (11-2).
“Same boat as we’ve been in,” Davis said Thursday about choosing a starter to face the Raiders, who Lester beat in Week 1 and Kennedy lost to in Week 12. “They both looked good (Thursday) in practice, so we’ll take a look again (today).”
Lester keeps getting healthier and Kennedy is starting to get in a groove after last week’s 60-36 win against rival Columbus, so Davis’ decision continues to get more difficult.
“Both guys have a great argument,” Davis said. “The games Darnell has (played), he’s completed 32 passes and 17 have been touchdowns. Right now he’s hot. But Cecil is 10-0 and if he isn’t here, we don’t play in this game. It’s tough. I have no idea.”
Davis said he doesn’t believe in going with a dual-quarterback system, so either Lester of Kennedy will take all the snaps in the biggest game of the year when it kicks off at 7:30 p.m. in the Albany Civic Center. The Panthers are the top seed and the Raiders are the No. 2.
Kennedy said he won’t mind if Lester returns for Saturday’s championship, but he also wouldn’t be upset if he’s the guy under center.
“Every competitor wants to play, but Cecil has been the starter since the beginning,” Kennedy said. “Mentally, he should be fresh and sharp.”
Lester had the competitive juices flowing Thursday and jokingly took offense to his backup being interviewed before Saturday’s title tilt.
“You’re supposed to be talking to me,” Lester said to a reporter with a laugh.
Lester already has an indoor league title ring, while Kennedy missed out last season after playing in Albany in 2010 — when the Panthers fell in a first-round upset, with Lester under center — before leaving and coming back this season.
“I do want the ring,” Kennedy said. “It would put a stamp on my stay here in Albany.”
And then what would the 33-year-old quarterback do?
“Hopefully go to Disney World, right?” Kennedy said.
COUNTERPUNCH: Columbus head coach Jason Gibson made it clear after last week’s loss in Albany the he didn’t appreciate Davis going for two points two minutes left in the Panthers’ lopsided, 24-point blowout win, saying afterward, “That’s what classless organizations do.”
The Panthers fired back Thursday, suggesting Gibson and the Lions need to take a look in the mirror. Davis explained the situation and why the two-point conversion was needed.
“For him to call us classless…,” Davis began, “if you look at the game, his players took a bunch of cheap shots at our guys. The two-point conversion wasn’t us rubbing it in their face. The reason we went for two was because the touchdown prior to that, they took the kicker (Ryan Gates) out (with a late hit) and he couldn’t play. He couldn’t plant and make the kick. I was thinking more about this game (Saturday). If (Gates) goes in and gets hit again, then we don’t have a kicker this week.”
Panthers players also recalled a few previous occasions in Columbus that has added to the rivalry, including the Lions’ presentation of their 2010 SIFL title game rings in front of the Panthers last season.
“I’m pretty sure it was kind of classless for them to jump in the stands with their fans before the game even started and some other classless (acts), but we’re not going to talk about that,” Panthers linebacker Larry Edwards said. “We’re just going to settle all our disputes on the field.”
Added Kennedy: “For a guy like that to call us classless is crazy. As many dirty hits during the game from their players (as there were), it’s just unheard of for him to say that. It wasn’t about running the score up.”
Bottom line, Davis said, the Panthers are playing for the league title Saturday — and Gibson’s Lions are home wishing they still were.
“Honestly, I don’t care,” Davis said of the seemingly never-ending feud with their instate foes. “The fact of the matter is, for two seasons in a row, he’s at home watching us play this week. You can print that the way I said it. Talk doesn’t win a game.”
ROAD RAIDERS: Both Albany and Richmond went undefeated at home in the regular season and lost to each other on the road, so it would seem the Panthers have a distinct advantage come Saturday.
Not necessarily, Davis said.
“I don’t think it’s an advantage at all,” Albany’s third-year head coach said. “With the magnitude of this game, once they get here their emotions are going to be high. It doesn’t matter if they’re traveling 30 hours to play this game.”
Edwards, meanwhile, is just glad he won’t have to get on the bus again this season and make the 14-hour bus ride to Virginia.
“I wouldn’t want to take that ride,” said the Panthers’ fifth-year inside linebacker out of North Carolina. “It does do something to your legs, but when it’s all said and done it’s no excuse.”
Richmond, however, may be a little wearier than Albany come Saturday considering the Raiders’ semifinal playoff game against Louisiana wasn’t played until Monday night because their arena was booked last weekend — by a Jehovah Witness convention — meaning the Raiders have had just three days to prepare before getting on the bus Friday, while Albany has had nearly a full week.