Want To Go or Listen?
WHO: Albany Panthers (6-0) at Columbus Lions (3-3).
WHAT: Panthers’ seventh game of season, first meeting against Columbus.
WHEN: 4 p.m. today.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
COLUMBUS — When the Albany Panthers step on the field for their biggest game of the regular season today, their leader will be a few steps behind.
Quarterback Cecil Lester, hobbled by an injured knee, will be a game-time decision when the 6-0, PIFL top-dog Panthers take on bitter rival Columbus in the Columbus Civic Center — a matchup Albany coach Lucious Davis called “the toughest of the season.”
Albany’s tough-as-nails quarterback might not leave the sidelines after hyper-extending his left knee in the third quarter of last week’s game against Alabama.
“He is having problems walking right now,” Davis said Friday afternoon. “We don’t know the seriousness of the injury yet. He practiced a little (Thursday), but it will be a game-time decision if he will dress (today).”
When Davis learned the severity of the injury, he put an immediate call out to former South Georgia Wildcats quarterback Darnell Kennedy, who was released from the AFL’s Georgia Force earlier this season. Davis said Kennedy, a 2001 Alabama State grad who played in the Canadian Football League after college, is ready to lead the offense if Lester can’t go.
“Darnell can run, so if something isn’t there he can get out and make plays with his feet,” Davis said. “He has a quicker release than Cecil and is smaller.”
Lester, who was Kennedy’s backup with the now-defunct Wildcats franchise that folded in 2010, has kept in touch with Kennedy through the years and said the Panthers will be in good hands with him.
“He is a great guy,” said Lester, who is third in the league in passing with 24 touchdowns, 1,198 yards and just seven interceptions. “He makes quick decisions and is a very accurate thrower. He is a smart guy, humble and God-fearing.”
Lester said Friday that his knee was at 85-90 percent, but he was uncertain if he will be able to play.
“It’s never fun when it’s your team and you are the leader and you have to stand on the sideline and become a cheerleader,” Lester said. “But I don’t mind being a supporter of my teammates.”
Kennedy saw limited action with the Force this season, completing 19-of-40 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns. If he replaces Lester in today’s lineup, his baptism into Panthers football will take place in some of the most hostile water around.
Bitter rivals, Albany and Columbus have met eight times in the last three years, and the Panthers’ 5-3 edge in the series hasn’t come without a fight.
“Once we get there (to Columbus), we have to match their intensity and execute,” said Davis, whose Panthers have won 11 games in a row since losing a regular-season game to Columbus last season. “But the way I look at it is that we have won there before, so it doesn’t bother me.”
The last time the two teams met in the Columbus Civic Center, the Panthers overcame a double-digit deficit to win the SIFL’s Eastern Conference Championship game. The Panthers also got the best of the Lions (3-3) two weeks ago when the top-ranked Albany defense got a pick-6 from Levance Richmond on the opening play of the game, leading the team to a 57-40 victory in the Albany Civic Center.
It’s that defense that has carried the Panthers to their second straight 6-0 start to a season. Albany’s defense has allowed just 37.3 points per game — six fewer than anybody else in the PIFL — and has ran three interceptions and one fumble back for touchdowns.
“Defensive scores are momentum killers,” Columbus coach Jason Gibson said. “In our last meeting we shot ourselves in the foot from the jump with a turnover. Our offense has to play a flawless game and turn the ball over because their defense will make you pay.”
Two of Albany’s defensive leaders — Damian Daniels and Ryan Babb — will return to the Columbus Civic Center for the first time since leaving the Lions for Albany this past offseason.
Daniels leads the league in interceptions with five, and Babb is 14th in the league in tackles with 21. Davis talked with them about playing the Lions two weeks ago when Columbus came to Albany, but he didn’t speak about the topic this week.
“The first time we played Columbus I talked to them and tried to get them to calm down so they wouldn’t get overly excited and anxious about it,” Davis said. “I hadn’t spoken to them at all about (today’s) game. I can imagine the emotions will be extremely high — higher than they were the first game. Now the entire fan base of the Lions will get to watch them play.”