Panthers not taking two-win Hammers lightly

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WHO: Panthers (7-1) at Hammers (2-6).

WHEN: 7 p.m. today.

WHERE: Huntsville, Ala.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Panthers defensive back Corey Rue stood outside of the locker room before Wednesday’s practice talking about tonight’s game against the Alabama Hammers.

That’s about the time quarterback Cecil Lester stepped out of the locker room and got right to the point.

“Everybody wants to knock us off,” Lester shouted. “That’s the truth. Everybody wants to knock us off.”

That’s the way the Panthers feel tonight heading into their game in Huntsville, Ala., where they will put their PIFL-best 7-1 record on the line against a Hammers team that is desperately trying to keep their season alive.

The Hammers, who are 2-6 and one game out of the league’s final playoff spot, have lost three games in a row by nine or fewer points, starting with the April 28 matchup in Albany when the Panthers held on for a 62-53 victory.

Before that game, Lester told The Herald that the Hammers were “an inch or two away from being real good.”

Fast forward three weeks, and the Panthers still believe Alabama is an opponent to be reckoned with.

“They are a good team, but they have just had some bad breaks,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “A play or two there and they could be 6-2. Their record doesn’t show how good they are. Their quarterback buys time and their receivers are good. Their coach does a good job of mixing it up and isn’t predicable at all. We have to be on our toes defensively when we play them.”

Albany’s defense has been the team’s backbone all season, refusing to back down during crucial goal-line stands and coming alive in the final minutes for game-saving plays.

The Panthers give up just 41.1 points per game, which is more than four points fewer than any other team in the league. They lead the league in sacks with 24 — seven more than second-place Richmond (6-2) — and hold opponents to a PIFL-low 27.8 percent on fourth-down conversions.

The defense isn’t lacking confidence either.

“I don’t (expect tonight’s game to be close),“ said Rue, who is the team’s leading tackler with 45. “I feel like our team has gotten better since (we last played them) and we have come more together as a family. We are a whole lot better now.”

Rue might feel like the defense is peaking at the end of the season, but the Panthers’ special teams took a huge hit this week when star kicker Geoff Boyer bolted for the AFL’s Pittsburgh Power.

Boyer, who routinely was named the PIFL’s Special Teams Player of the Week, led the Panthers in scoring with 118 points on 19-of-24 field goals and 49-of-54 extra points. His longest kick of the season was 45 yards, and he was an impressive 6-for-6 on kicks of 40 yards and longer.

“It’s a huge loss for us,” Davis said. “I wish him good luck. It’s all about moving up, and he had that opportunity and took advantage of it.”

Davis made the decision earlier in the season to place every bit of his confidence in Boyer and keep just one place kicker on the team’s roster, so when Boyer surprised the team Sunday with the news of his immediate departure, it left Davis scrambling to find a replacement.

On Thursday, the Panthers signed former Albany State kicker Chad Spencer, who kicked for the Rams six years ago and was most recently the place kicker for the South Georgia Noles — a semi-pro football team based in Albany. Spencer made 6-of-10 field goals and 25-of-30 extra points last season for the Noles, who have recently changed their name to the South Georgia Sting.