Panthers running back Derrick Wimbush, who has been held without a touchdown in eight rushing attempts this season, breaks off a long run in last week’s victory against the Louisiana Swashbucklers, who will play the Panthers for the second week in a row when the two teams clash tonight in the Albany Civic Center at 7:30.
ALBANY — Albany quarterback Cecil Lester’s conversation with Clenton Rafe after the two linked up for the game-winning touchdown last week against Louisiana was short and to the point.
“Thank you,” Lester told Rafe after the former ASU receiver caught a pass with 4.5 seconds left to clinch Albany’s 58-55 victory.
The Panthers have a lot to be thankful for these days.
At 2-0 they are the only undefeated team left in the PIFL; they just received their 2011 SIFL championship rings on Friday, and they have a team morale that spills over onto the field during game day.
The Panthers’ undefeated start will be put to the test tonight against Louisiana (1-1) in a rematch of both last week’s thriller and last year’s championship game, which the Panthers won, 69-48.
It’s not often football teams play back-to-back games against each other, but the PIFL’s small, six-team league has forced the Panthers and Swashbucklers to do just that.
“It’s kind of good because the gameplan stays the same,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “You may tweak something here or there, but it pretty much stays the same. The bad thing about it is you get tired of playing the same team. You want to play somebody else.”
There’s no doubt that Louisiana is especially tired of playing the Panthers, who have won the last three meetings between the two teams.
“There’s a lot of respect between the two teams,” said Louisiana coach Darnell Lee, who added that his game plan has changed since last week. “When you lose, you have to change things up. When you win, you can keep things the same. We changed a lot of things this week in practice. (Tonight) should be fun.”
The Panthers’ comeback last week handed the Swashbucklers just their third loss at home in the history of their franchise — and Albany was able to do it without wide receiver and former Westover standout Antwone Savage, who was unable to make the trip because he was scheduled to take the state’s teacher certification test.
Savage was at home listening to the game on the radio as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“I was just hoping somebody would make a play so we could pull it out,” Savage said. “We hadn’t won over there since the franchise started, so it was something big for me, coach and the organization.”
Rafe, who had joined the team just two days before the game and started in place of Savage, made that game-saving play and is looking to make an impact in tonight’s game, too. Rafe will be in the starting lineup again with an injury to wide receiver and Americus-Sumter grad John Harris. The Panthers have also added defensive lineman Tito Hannah, who was a part of last year’s championship team, to the roster.
Louisiana’s lineup is even more shaken up. Swashbucklers quarterback Alvin Bartie is still out from a concussion he suffered in the third quarter of last week’s game and will be replaced under center by Fred Harrison, while backup quarterback Ben McLaughlin, who was last year’s starter, has been released.
“Freddie (Harrison) was our championship quarterback a few years ago, and he’s the last quarterback to beat Albany in the playoffs,” said Lee, referring to the 2009 Louisiana team that won the SIFL title.
Of course, Louisiana’s quarterback position isn’t as important as it is to most arena squads, given the Swashbucklers’ unconventional style of being a run-first team. Kendrick Perry has rushed for four touchdowns and 77 yards in the first two games of the season and was effective last week against Albany with 39 yards and two touchdowns.
“They broke some good runs on us,” Davis said. “The schemes that they run aren’t typical with arena football. (Lee’s) philosophy is to play outdoor football inside, and it works for him.”
Albany’s offense is led by Lester, and that seems to be working for the Panthers. Lester had a shaky season opener against Richmond, completing just 11-of-23 passes for a career-low 115 yards. He bounced back last week with four touchdown passes and 207 yards through the air and a pair of rushing touchdowns. He said most of his success last week was made possible through the athleticism of his recievers.
“Last week we were able to get the ball out to our playmakers, so that’s what we are going to try to focus on this week,” Lester said. “We want to get the ball out to them quicker. They are a good defense and a good team, so we don’t want to underestimate that.”
The Panthers, who have a bye next week, will remain in sole possession of first place in the PIFL with a win tonight, but they could drop to as low as fourth place with a loss.