Former Americus star and current Panthers wideout Antwon Cutts, left, breaks a tackle against the Louisiana Swashbucklers during Saturday night’s game in Lake Charles, La. Cutts scored twice in the thrilling 58-55, comeback win. (Lake Charles American Press/Special to The Herald)
LAKE CHARLES, La. — Cecil Lester and the Albany Panthers weren’t talking about the rematch.
Now they might have everyone talking about a repeat.
Lester, who tossed a 7-yard touchdown to Clenton Rafe with 4.5 seconds left, led the Panthers to a thrilling 58-55 win against the Louisiana Swashbucklers on Saturday, leaving Albany (2-0) as the only undefeated team in the PIFL.
Rafe, a 2005 Albany State grad, joined the team Thursday when coach Lucious Davis found out receiver and Westover grad Antowne Savage couldn’t make the 10-hour trip, and Rafe led the team with a pair of touchdown catches.
“It feels great to be back on this team and be a contributor,” said Rafe, who was a key member of last year’s championship squad. “It feels great just to be around the guys and go out and play well (Saturday).”
Saturday night’s game in the Smuggler’s Den — a venue Albany has never won at — was a rematch of last year’s SIFL Championship game between Albany and Louisiana, which the Panthers won in convincing fashion. The Panthers, however, were keeping their focus squarely on this season and not hyping up the rematch.
Turns out, this game had all the hype and excitement it needed.
Louisiana (1-1) took an early 19-7 lead before Albany went on a 40-14 run to take a 47-33 lead into the fourth quarter. The Swashbucklers chipped away at that lead in the final 12 minutes and eventually overtook the Panthers thanks to back-to-back rushing touchdowns by quarterback Sammy Knight, who started the game out at receiver before replacing starter Alvin Bartie under center.
Albany’s final possession began with 59.4 seconds left, and the Panthers’ meticulously worked the ball down the field before Lester found Rafe in the back of the end zone for the game-winning score.
“I just threw my hands up (when Rafe caught the pass),” Davis said. “We needed that play. I joked with him before the game to give me a reason why I brought you back.”
Louisiana placekicker Blake Bercegeay had a shot to tie the game with a 40-yard field goal as the final horn sounded, but he missed his fourth field goal of the game to ensure just the third home loss in the history of the Swashbucklers’ program. The Swashbucklers were 42-2 in the Smuggler’s Den entering the game, and Albany had never won in the arena.
Lester, who threw four touchdown passes and ran for two more, gave away his only interception of the game with 20 seconds left in the first quarter, which defensive lineman Bryant Mason returned for a touchdown to give the Swashbucklers a 19-7 lead.
The Panthers outscored Louisiana 24-7 in the second quarter behind two rushing touchdowns from Lester, a 7-yard TD pass from Lester to Americus-Sumter grad Antwon Cutts and a 48-yard field goal from Geoff Boyer.
Boyer opened the third quarter with a field goal, but Louisiana cut the Panthers’ lead to one when Bartie hit fullback Kendrick Perry on a short touchdown pass. The Panthers then extended their lead to a game-high 14 points when Lester threw a second TD pass to Cutts, and defensive back Damian Daniels returned an interception for a touchdown.
Louisiana opened up the fourth quarter with a rushing touchdown from receiver Jordan Rideaux, who brought the Swashbucklers to within seven points but was hit with a personal foul after handing the ball to a baby in the crowd during his celebration.
Louisiana mounted its comeback with Knight’s rushing TDs, but Lester and the Panthers countered with their own comeback to keep themselves on top of the league.
The two teams meet again Saturday in Albany.