The Panthers have had their share of close games this season that have come down to the wire, but they’ve managed to come out on top in all but one of them — and it was the one game starting QB Cecil Lester didn’t play in. Lester returned last week from injury and played hero in a come-from-behind victory against the Swashbucklers. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WHO: Albany Panthers (7-1) at Alabama Hammers (2-6).
WHAT: Panthers’ ninth game of season.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Huntsville, Ala.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
LIVE UPDATES: Log onto twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
ALBANY — With the game on the line last Saturday against Louisiana, Panthers coach Lucious Davis looked his players in the eyes.
He saw determination and desire staring right back.
“They wanted it,” he said before Wednesday’s practice. “There was a different desire in them.”
That unwillingness to give up has been a trademark all season for the Panthers, who have put together a PIFL-best 7-1 record with several down-to-the-wire victories, including Saturday when they trailed the Swashbucklers by a touchdown with a little more than a minute to go before storming to a 54-47 victory.
The Panthers have overcome several second-half deficits this season and needed clutch touchdowns in the final minutes in four of their seven wins. Their only loss of the season — a 58-56 setback at Columbus two weeks ago — also came down to the wire.
“We just have to understand that the team that doesn’t make the last mistake is the one that will win,” Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester said. “We pride ourselves in making that play in the clutch moments. From offense to defense we all want to make that play. So when it comes down to it in a close game and we need a touchdown or a stop, we are OK with getting that. I don’t think a lot of us panic.”
Game-saving plays in clutch moments have come from predictable stars — like when Lester connected with former Albany State star Clenton Rafe with 4.5 seconds left to clinch the franchise’s first road win at Louisiana on March 24 — and from unexpected heroes — like when defensive back Corey Rue ran an interception back for a touchdown to lift Albany to a victory in its season opener.
When they trailed in the final minutes Saturday against the Swashbucklers, Lester knew it was just a matter of time before one of his teammates provided the fireworks. This time they came from safety Damian Daniels, who picked off two passes in the final minute.
“At the end of the game we told (Daniels) we needed a stop,” Lester said. “If he got us a stop, we win the game. He went right out and got us a stop, and the rest is history.”
The Panthers have kept fans holding their breath in the waning moments of many games, and more often than not it’s been their big-play defense that lets them exhale. Albany leads the league in defense, allowing just 41.1 points per game and is tops in the league in pass defense at 197.4 yards per game.
“Our defense has turned it up in the fourth quarter in just about every close game,” Davis said. “Look at the game against Alabama when they turned it up. Look at the game against Columbus when they made some plays. Look at Saturday when they turned it on.”
You can look all throughout the Panthers’ defense and find veterans who aren’t afraid to make the big play.
“We wait till the last minute to turn it up,” Rue said. “We come together in the final minutes. Everybody has the same attitude about wanting to win and not wanting to lose. We all have the same goal — getting another ring.”
LESTER’S BACK: Lester is unsure if he will need surgery after the season for his torn meniscus, and he doesn’t know how much longer his left knee will bother him.
However, he does know this: He will be on the field Saturday.
Lester sat out two weeks ago against Columbus because of the injury and watched the Panthers lose their only game of the season, but he returned to the lineup last Saturday to lead the comeback against Louisiana — throwing a season-high six touchdowns in the process.
His left knee swelled up after the victory, but he said it was 90-95 percent during the game and didn’t affect his throwing motion or mobility.
“I didn’t bother me,” Lester said. “The adrenaline was flowing as the game was going. I really didn’t pay attention to it.”
Lester is fourth in the league in passing with 1,449 yards and 30 touchdowns, and Davis said the Panthers’ offensive line gave their quarterback plenty of protection last week.
“I put the pressure on the offensive line and myself,” Davis said. “The offensive line had to protect him, and I have to put him in safe play calls. I can’t have him dropping back five steps every time and letting them tee off on him. I have to mix in the runs and screens to keep the pressure off of him.”
The injury happened three weeks ago in the second half against the Hammers, who will host the Panthers this weekend. But Lester said he won’t be looking for any revenge when he steps on the field Saturday.
“I don’t think it was a nasty hit,” he said. “It is what it is, and those type of plays happen in games.”
TWO-WAY STAR: Antwon Cutts reached back into his past Saturday and played on both sides of the ball against Louisiana.
Cutts, who pulled double duty while in high school at Americus-Sumter, was forced onto the defensive side of the ball when defensive back Levance Richmond was suspended for the rest of the season for throwing a punch two weeks ago against Columbus.
Years ago, Cutts had no problem staying on the field for every play — but last Saturday he needed a little help.
“I was running on 5-hour energy drinks, so I really wasn’t tired until Sunday,” Cutts said with a laugh. “But it hit me in a major way Sunday.”
He was the Panthers’ third-leading receiver in the game with three catches for 30 yards and a touchdown, and he also had four tackles on defense. Davis said his two-way star has been a great asset to the team.
“I have been impressed with him,” Davis said. “He is very strong mentally and pays attention to details and pays attention to the game. He understands what is going on and makes his plays.”