Panthers coach Lucious Davis, seen here at practice, said his team played well in the gut-wrenching 58-56, loss to Columbus on Sunday.
COLUMBUS — If you were starting to wonder what it would take to beat the Albany Panthers, try this one — a miracle finish and a gut-wrenching field goal.
The Panthers, the only unbeaten team in the PIFL, saw their perfect 6-0 start end on Sunday in Columbus when the looked up and watched Trey Crum’s 54-yard field goal beat them, 58-56, in the best and most dramatic game of the season.
Crum, who has been the top kicker in the league since the Panthers started playing arena football three years ago, not only handed Albany its first loss of the season, but put an ending to an incredible comeback by the Panthers.
“We played hard, so I can’t complain about that,’’ said Panthers coach Lucious Davis, who saw his Panthers come back all afternoon and stage a comeback for the ages in the fourth quarter when they erased a 14-point deficit in the final minute of the game. They were down 55-41 at the one minute warning, and grabbed a 56-55 lead with 18 seconds left.
And they did it with their starting quarterback on the bench.
Cecil Lester, who led Albany to a championship a year ago and a 6-0 start this season, was out with a leg injury, and the Panthers had to scramble to replace him this week with former South Georgia Wildcat and Georgia Force QB Darnell Kennedy.
It was Kennedy who led the breath-taking comeback, driving for a touchdown with a 20-yard strike to Antwon Cutts with just under a minute to play to close to 55-48. Then after the Panthers stopped Columbus — believe it or not, Crum missed a 32-yard field goal with 28 seconds left — Kennedy pulled one out of his hat, tossing a 30-yard touchdown pass to Cutts with 18 seconds on the clock.
Geoff Boyer kicked the extra point to knot the score at 55-55, then put what looked like a dagger into Columbus (4-3) on the ensuing kickoff. Boyer kicked the rare uno — a kickoff that splits the uprights and is worth one point in arena football.
But what a point it was.
“We made some mistakes early, and Geoff kept us in the game with his field goals,’’ Davis said. “Then we came back and that uno gave us the lead with 18 seconds left. We knew we still had to stop them and make sure they had to take a long field goal.’’
That’s exactly what happened.
“Give them credit,’’ Davis said. “We stopped them, and he made a long field goal. It went the way we planned (except he made the field goal).
“We made them take a long field goal, and he made it. I’ll take my chances against that any day of the week.’’
Davis had said earlier in the week that this would be the Panthers’ biggest test of the regular season — and he was on the money.
Afterall, this was not only against Columbus, the Panthers’ biggest rival — but in Columbus.
And just to make it even more fun for Albany, the Lions jumped out to a 15-0 lead, thanks to two early turnovers. But Kennedy came back and better as the game wore and the drama wore on.
“We turned the ball over with an interception and a fumble on our first three series, and you can’t turn the ball over against a team like Columbus on the road,’’ Davis said. “He (Kennedy) started out rough, but in the fourth quarter he settled down and started making some plays.’’
Kennedy made enough of them to bring Albany back — but then Crum took it all away.
“He has been one of the best kickers for a long time,’’ Davis said. “It comes down to making a play, and they made one lpay and we didn’t.
“I’m pleased with the way we played,’’ Davis added. “The way we played, I’m pleased with that. We made some mistakes, but there’s no excuse at all. They just beat us.’’