WR Clenton Rafe celebrates Saturday night after the first of his two TD catches for the Panthers, who prevailed, 54-47, against the Louisiana Swashbucklers after a game-winning TD with 22 seconds left by — you guessed it — Rafe. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — Well, that didn’t take long.
That one-game losing streak ended for the Albany Panthers about as quickly as it began, and it ended the way it started — in dramatic fashion.
After losing to Columbus, 58-56, last week on a 54-yard field goal as time expired, the Panthers didn’t just bounce back Saturday night at home, it was more like spring-boarding back with a last-minute 54-47 win against Louisiana, a team that never wants to see Damian Daniels again.
You know, Daniels, the greatest thief in a arena football — a man who steals passes, breaks hearts and dances while he does it.
You know, Daniels, the man who has been named the defensive MVP of every league he’s played in for the last four years.
You know, Daniels, the best defensive back in arena football — the man who left Columbus to become a Panther this season.
Yeah, that guy.
Give him a couple of game balls, a pat on the back and make sure every Panther (and Panthers fan) stops by to say thanks for coming to Albany. Anyone who didn’t know why the Panthers were so happy he arrived found out Saturday night when Daniels grabbed two interceptions — and the game — in the final minute of play to lift Albany to a comeback win.
“That’s why we got him. We got him just for that! We brought him here just for that!’’ said Panthers receiver Clenton Rafe, who caught a 13-yard TD pass from Cecil Lester with 22 seconds left to break a 47-47 tie.
Rafe’s game-winning TD catch in the right corner of the end zone broke the tie just seconds after Daniels had broken Louisiana’s heart.
The two teams had changed leads a half dozen times and the Swashbucklers (3-5) had the ball with 47 seconds left, but on the first play from scrimmage Louisiana QB Fredd Harrison went deep to try to win it.
Daniels, who picked off Harrison’s third pass of the night — way back at the beginning of the first quarter — was there with the play of the game. And after Rafe scored, Daniels put an end to Louisiana’s night with his third interception, picking off a long pass with 17 seconds left. That’s two picks within 30 seconds, just in case anyone is counting.
The Panthers can count on Daniels.
“I call that money,’’ said Daniels, who now has a PIFL-best eight interceptions for the season. ‘That’s money — money plays. I knew they were going to go deep on the first play, so I just went to the middle of the field and waited, then followed the ball. We knew we had to make a play there.’’
Maybe, but Daniels said he had no doubt the Panthers would pull the game out, even after trailing, 47-40, in the final minutes.
“No doubt about it,’’ Daniels said. “We knew as a team. We’re veterans and we’ve been through so much adversity. We never get down.’’
Lester said he knew Daniels was going to make the play — even before Louisiana snapped the ball.
“I knew he was going to get it because he just told me before they went out there that he was going to get it,’’ Lester said. “He told me he was going to get it, and I told him when he got it we were going to put it in the box.’’
That’s what Lester did. He had just completed four passes in a row — three to Rafe and a 13-yard TD strike to Antwone Savage — on a previous drive to knot the score at 47-47 with 55.8 seconds left.
Then he went to work after Daniels’ pick, completing three passes in a row to get the ball to the Louisiana 15. Derrick Wimbush, who had scored earlier in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run, rushed for two yards to the 13, and then Lester hit Rafe in the right corner for the game winner with 27 seconds left.
“Man, it always feels good to make a play like that to help your team win,’’ said Rafe, who had 11 receptions for 138 yards and two second-half touchdowns. “They count on me to make that kind of play, and with Cecil I knew we were going to score. At the end, we knew we had the experience to make that play. There was no doubt we were going to win the game.’’
Daniels mad sure of that. He grabbed his third pick of the night 10 seconds later.
“We had to win. We had to bounce back from last week,’’ said Lester, who sat out the Columbus loss with a slightly torn meniscus and bounced back himself. He played in pain and completed 21-of-36 passes for 251 yards and six TDs, including two in the final minute of the game.
“I had to play through the pain for my teammates,’’ Lester said. “There was a little pain at the end, but we needed to win this game.’’
Lester showed no signs of a lack of mobility and avoided a dangerous pass rush all night without getting sacked. He did lose one fumble that was returned 15 yards for a TD to open the second half that gave Louisiana a 26-20 lead.
Lester started fast, completing three of his first four passes, including TD throws to Savage, who made five catches for 58 yards and finished with three TDs, and Antwon Cutts, who had three receptions for 30 yards and one TD, to give the Panthers a 14-0 lead.
He finished even stronger.
“On the first two drives Cecil was great,’’ Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “Then he (didn’t play as well), and then he came through on the last two drives.’’
Davis, however, was ecstatic with the win.
“Oh, it was big. It was very important after losing a game last week,’’ he said. “You didn’t want to lose two in a row, especially to lose at home.’’
The Panthers are still the top team in the PIFL at 7-1 with four regular-season games left, including three on the road.
They will hit the road with confidence.
Lester is back, and Daniels? Well he’s back there...