ALBANY --- As the two-time defending league champs, you'd think there wasn't a single scenario the Albany Panthers haven't seen.
The Panthers survived a fumble on the second play from scrimmage, a pick-six and several blocked and missed field goals to knock off the visiting Raiders, 69-63, late Saturday night at the Albany Civic Center in a triple-overtime thriller. It was the first triple OT game in franchise history --- first double, in fact.
“It was a war, man,” receiver John Harris said. “We knew they weren’t going to lie down. We played hard and we came out winners.”
It was a must-win game for Albany, which is sitting on the bubble of the fourth and final playoff spot at 5-4. Richmond, meanwhile, dropped to 6-4 but remains comfortably in second place. The loss by the Raiders also kept Richmond from clinching a playoff spot.
That was an especially sweet detail the Panthers took from this win.
“It’s perseverance, that’s all,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “We made mistakes early, but we just kept plugging and making plays. “
Antwon Cutts, who’s been playing more defensive back as of late, broke up a deep ball from Warren Smith in an earlier overtime. Just minutes later, he dropped back into zone coverage, this time intercepting a Smith pass in the final overtime to clinch the win.
The estimated 5,000 fans in the Civic Center went nuts, spilling onto the field.
“I’ve made that play over and over again,” Cutts said. “I could’ve caught the first one. Everyone could’ve been home eating, bathing and getting ready for work (if I make the first INT), but we got the job done. It was a must-win game, and we made it happen. We had a great week in practice, so I knew we’d have a good game.”
The Panthers’ offense lost a key cog in the win, however. On their second offensive series, former Westover and Oklahoma star Antwone Savage seemed to plant his foot in the turf awkwardly. After the game, Davis confirmed that Savage broke his fibula and tibia, what was likely his final season anyway. Savage un-retired this past offseason to try and help Albany accomplish the three-peat.
A 12-yard touchdown catch by Gerron Bryant with 36 seconds left on the clock in regulat seemed nail the coffin in this one --- but not so fast. Albany wasn't about to let their ailing teammate Savage go out like that.
“We had to come together,” Panthers WR Clenton Rafe said of the Panthers’ receiving corps. “In the game of football, (the saying is), ‘Next man up,’ so me and (fellow WR) Johnny (Lester) came together for a good team win.”
A couple of weeks ago, Albany’s surprise star emerged in Lester, who now leads the league in receptions per game after his breakout season. But this week the hero was Rafe, who had been out for about three months with an injury, when he caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Cecil Lester with eight seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
“Rafe’s a vet,” said Harris of the six-year receiver out of Albany State. “He’s been playing a long time. He taught me how to play. That’s what we expect out of him.”
Rafe couldn't wait to get back on the field and make a difference.
“After those three months, stressing out during the team’s losing streak, I just wanted to come in contribute,” said Rafe of Albany's three-game skid midseason after starting 3-0. “I know what I meant to the team, and I just wanted to come in and do my part.”
Cecil, the older brother of Johnny Lester, said that next to Savage, there isn't a guy he'd rather throw the ball to with the game on the line.
“We’ve been playing together for at least five years,” Cecil said, “So the chemistry will never leave. He stepped right in, and did what he was supposed to do.”
Davis said he was glad to have his "money guy" back in the lineup.
“I know what I’m going to get out of him,” Davis said of Rafe. “That’s my money guy. If I need him, I know he’s going to make a play. I’m just happy to have him back, but we’ve got to build from here though.”
Rafe finished with 11 catches for 130 yards and five touchdowns in his return. Johnny Lester caught eight passes for 109 yards and three touchdowns. John Harris finished with eight catches for 84 yards.
Cecil Lester went 30-for-51, with nine touchdowns, an interception and a fumble. Damian Daniels also picked off a pass for the Panthers, who hit the road at play rival Columbus next week.