Derrick Wimbush and the Panthers went to Knoxville, Tenn., last week with the league’s only 3-0 record and a ton of confidence considering they were facing the only winless team in the league in the Nighthawks. But Knoxville rose to the occasion and knocked off the Panthers in a low-scoring, 31-28 affair that had Albany’s players, coaches and fans — as well as the rest of the PIFL — bewildered at how the league’s powerhouse franchise could lose a game that seemed like such an easy win.
WHO: Albany Panthers (3-1) at Alabama Hammers (3-1).
WHAT: Panthers’ third road game of the season.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Hunstville, Ala.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
ALBANY — After going into the bye week with a bang as the only 3-0 team in the PIFL, the Albany Panthers’ 31-28 loss to the previously winless Knoxville Nighthawks caught most fans — and teams around the league — by surprise.
Though Knoxville had the highest-ranked pass defense in the PIFL, surely there was little doubt the Panthers’ vaunted passing attack would cash in when it counted. But they didn’t.
So what happened?
That’s what coach Lucious Davis and the Panthers have spent the week trying to figure out.
“I don’t think it was nerves, just a lack of desire,” Davis said Wednesday after having several days to reflect on the loss, as well as view game film. “I felt like this game, my team really didn’t want to play. They thought it was going to be a pushover, but it wasn’t.”
The Panthers’ high-scoring attack lost, despite its defense holding the Nighthawks to just four points in the second half — a number that’s almost unheard of in the arena game. After Anton Ceasar picked off a pass in the red zone late in the fourth quarter, it seemed the defending champs were going to sneak away with a win. However, after the offense squandered two chances to get into the end zone from 10 yards out in the second half, the possibility of an upset was a reality.
Davis also blamed poor communication.
“(As a coach), you just have a fear of a letdown from your team, and that’s pretty much what happened to us. We dropped 10 passes, four of them could’ve been touchdowns,” Davis said. “We missed a field goal and had another one blocked. And we blew a coverage (assignment) that went for a touchdown.”
The offense knows it failed last Friday.
They didn’t point fingers Wednesday at practice, but they all acknowledged that everyone was responsible in their own way.
Quarterback Cecil Lester, who completed only 47 percent of his passes last Friday, was visibly ticked at the way the game turned out.
“We didn’t play well. Point-blank period,” Lester said emphatically. “When you’re playing against a team that has nothing to lose, and you have everything to lose, you have to make those plays. If you let them hang around long enough, they start to build up the confidence that they can beat you, and you start to feel like you can’t beat them. I think that’s what happened.”
Receiver Antwone Savage had a similar take
“It was just a bad day,” Savage said. “They didn’t do anything special, we just couldn’t connect.”
Antwon Cutts, the only receiver to score a touchdown Friday, said the team had a good week of practice, but when it came game time, the Panthers just plain stunk.
“We were well-prepared for them, we just didn’t execute the game plan,” he said. “I feel like they did nothing to make us lose, we beat ourselves. Dropped balls, bad throws, we’re to blame. We beat ourselves.”
Lester has endured his share of criticism over the years before emerging as a team leader and MVP during the Panthers’ back-to-back championship seasons.
“We have no excuses about what their defense did, the field conditions or balls overthrown, or missed catches,” Lester said. “The routine plays we’re comfortable with, we didn’t make those plays. That’s just the bottom line. They didn’t stop us, they didn’t just hold us out. We didn’t make the plays.”
Aside from a late Cutts touchdown, the Nighthawks were able to keep Cutts, Savage and John Harris — arguably the most talented and undoubtedly the most accomplished receiving trio in the league — out of the end zone for most of the game. However, the Panthers were still one possession away from winning with under three minutes to play. That fact was proof alone that this upset shouldn’t dampen any of the Panther faithful’s spirits in what should be remembered as one ugly loss in a long and successful season.
With the defense serving up the game on a silver platter, the Panthers struggled in the other two phases of the game, and it came back to haunt them.
“For the most part, the defense played good on the last two series and the whole second half. On offense, we played well the first three series then stunk it up for the rest of the game,” Davis said. “On special teams, we didn’t play well at all, except for extra points. The main positive we can take from this game is that as bad as we played, we still had a chance to win late, we just didn’t catch the ball.
“We’re talking about three of the best receivers in the league, and each one of them dropped at least two balls, each one dropped a touchdown. What are the chances of that happening? If we straighten that up, we’ll be all right.”