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Panthers stunned by previously winless Nighthawks

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Try as they might, the wily defending champions just couldn’t keep their feet on the gas Friday night, falling to the previously winless Knoxville Nighthawks, 31-28.

As Panthers coach Lucious Davis foreshadowed a couple of days ago, you couldn’t expect the winless Knoxville Nighthawks to just lie down for the defending champs.

Although their 0-4 record didn’t seem like much, they only suffered one particularly bad loss, a 30-point shellacking at the hands of the Columbus Lions.

While they ranked towards the bottom of the league in most statistical categories, they boasted the PIFL’s top-ranked pass defense.

Davis remarked earlier that losing to Knoxville was always a possibility if they took them lightly. In that case, on their heels, down 28-21 early in the third quarter, with the home team knocking on their doorstep yet again, the Panthers shouldn’t have felt too bad about their chances.

They’ve survived so many close calls this year, who wouldn’t believe they had any tricks left in their bag?

Another well-rounded effort on both sides of the ball kept the Panthers in the game late, despite every break the Nighthawks seemed to catch. With the home team driving early in the third quarter after taking a 27-21 lead into the locker room at halftime, Anton Ceasar’s interception off a tipped pass at the 10-yard line looked to be the big break that’s come every week so far.

However, after another fruitless drive deep into Nighthawk territory ended with a failed 4th-down conversion, the next one with a fumble by John Harris, and the next with a blocked field goal, every big play the defense made to keep the Panthers in the game mattered even less. Usually-reliable Ryan Gates missed three field goal attempts and had one blocked, and once Nighthawks defensive back Gini Ibe intercepted a Cecil Lester pass with just over three minutes left in regulation, it seemed that the Panthers had run out of mulligans.

The Panthers’ scoring efforts came from unlikely sources on Friday. Derrick Wimbush scored on a one-yard sneak in the first quarter and later on a 27-yard reception in the second. Aaron Wheeler scored on an eight-yard reception out of the backfield in the second quarter. A late touchdown on a sneak by Lester with the game out of reach made the score seem much closer. The telling statistic of the game, however, is that the Nighthawks secondary lived up to its hype on paper, keeping the Panthers’ receiving trio out of the endzone all game.

Knoxville’s Daccus Turman scored on a one-yard run in the first quarter, while quarterback Randy Hippeard scored on a sneak from the same distance. Ryan Schuck scored the touchdown in the second quarter that would put the Nighthawks ahead for good.

The Panthers will try to get the bad taste of defeat out of their mouths next week in Huntsville, Ala., where they’ll face the 2-1 Alabama Hammers for the second time this season.