Panthers FB Derrick Wimbush was stopped short of the goal line on this play during Albany and Columbus’ first meeting earlier this year at the Civic Center. Wimbush would score on the next down and the Panthers would go on to win, setting the stage for tonight’s rematch between the in-state rivals with plenty of playoff implications on the line for both teams. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Want To Go or Listen?
WHO: Albany Panthers (5-4) at Columbus Lions (4-6).
WHAT: Final road game of the regular season, annual rivalry meeting.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
ALBANY — These are the moments in the season when a team finds out just what it’s made of.
Those gut-check, reach-deep-down, last-hurrah-type moments when a team can either make plans for the postseason — or make plans to watch the postseason from home.
Tonight, two teams will take the field in Columbus with identical hopes of the former and no plans at the latter.
It’s the 13th installment of the PIFL’s only in-state rivalry, and neighboring franchises Albany and Columbus enter this game in the same spot: It’s a must-win.
“It’s like the Fort Valley vs. Albany State games,” Panthers QB Cecil Lester said, referring to the annual Fountain City Classic between the bitter rival Rams and Wildcats. “You can throw the records out. We expect a hard-fought game. We expect them to give us everything they’ve got. They need this victory (just as much as we do).”
The Panthers, the two-time defending league champs who got a 69-63 triple overtime win last Saturday against Richmond to stay perfect at home (4-0), currently hold onto what the Lions are after: that fourth and final playoff spot.
At 5-4, Albany not only has a two-game lead on Columbus (4-6), but the Panthers also hold the tiebreaker over the Lions after beating their rivals at the Civic Center in the second game of the season back on March 16, 40-37.
But Columbus has one pretty important advantage tonight: At 1-4 away from the Civic Center, Albany ain’t so great on the road.
Luckily for the Panthers and coach Lucious Davis, the 90-mile jaunt to Columbus is the shortest of the season.
“Travel doesn’t matter at this point,” Davis said. “You’re playing in a different venue in front of a different crowd, but it doesn’t matter that much. We haven’t been winning on the road, but we expect to go out there and win.”
The Panthers have done just that lately in this rivalry series, winning four straight dating back to last year and holding an 8-4 all-time record.
The playoffs start in three weeks, but if they began today, Albany would be in and Columbus would be out — a fact Columbus coach Jason Gibson made very clear to his team this week during practice.
“Every game is a playoff game for us now,” Gibson told The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. “It makes it fun, that’s for sure. If we keep winning, we’ll get in. If we don’t, we’re out. We let some games slip away from us as the season has gone along, and now we’re having to deal with it.”
The game will boast all three of the PIFL’s Week 13 Players of the Week. Lester shared offensive honors with the Lions quarterback Marcus Jones, who accounted for 246 total yards and six touchdowns in a huge 59-48 win against Lehigh Valley last Sunday that kept the Lions’ playoff hopes alive.
Lions defensive end Joshua Gipson earned Defensive Player of the Week honors after notching a sack, two pass deflections and an interception returned for a touchdown.
Jones leads the Lions in passing and rushing yards, racking up 1,017 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air and 214 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Defensively, lineman Justen Rivers leads the way for Columbus with 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, ranking fifth and sixth, receptively. Defensive back Anthony Shutt has picked off seven passes this year, leading the PIFL in that category. Despite Shutt’s gaudy stats, the Lions are dead last in the league in pass defense and sixth in rush defense.
“They’ve been playing well all season,” Davis said of their in-state rivals. “We have to find a way to contain the quarterback. We have to watch out for the defensive end getting out in the flat. Those guys have been playing the same way all season. We know what’s coming. We just have to make sure we adjust.”
In what’s presumed to be his final year with the Panthers, the arena-league veteran Lester hasn’t missed a beat. He’s second in the league in total offense and average passing yards per game, totaling 2,419 yards and 45 touchdowns through the air. His cousin, Johnny Lester, has slowly become one to watch, currently sitting at fourth in the league in average receiving yards. Johnny Lester has 458 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, all while sharing touches in the league’s premiere receiving corps. The team leader in receiving touchdowns, Antwon Cutts, is currently playing more defensive back due to injuries and an abundance of depth on offense.
Quietly, though, the Panthers’ defense has emerged in a big way recently. They lead the league in total defense, giving up an average of only 242 yards per game. Tito Hannah paces this unit, sitting second in the league in sacks, and first in tackles for loss, racking up 8.5 and 10 each respectively.
The two teams will face each other in back-to-back weeks — in Columbus this week, and back at the Civic Center next week. The Panthers are playing their last road game of the regular season and will close with two straight home games. They will have faced each other three times before it’s all said and done, and Davis said their familiarity with each other won’t play as much of a role as one would believe.
“The most important thing is taking care of the ball and protecting the quarterback,” he said. “We don’t change anything (from game-to-game). They know what we’re going to do. We play them at least three times every year, so it boils down to which team protects the ball the best. You can look at every game we’ve played, whichever team won the turnover battle is the team that wins.”
The injury bug has hit both teams as of late — the Panthers lost starting receiver Antwone Savage and backup quarterback James Steadman, while the Lions have lost four key players to injury, including defensive star LeRoy Vann.
Regardless who’s on the field, Gibson calls every game with Albany a “crap shoot.” Although, he’s not shy to boast that he feels the Lions are a better team — a claim that’s sure to find its way on the Panthers’ bulletin board before tonight’s latest installment of this heated Peach State rivalry.
“It’s really a crap shoot,” Gibson told the Ledger-Enquirer. “You look at film and you have to just throw it out a little bit because you have to figure out if you’re a better team or a worse team. I know we’re a better team, especially on the defensive line, but we’ve been bit by the injury bug awful bad. We did watch them some on film, but it’s hard to do much with it when so many different people are playing now than were playing back then.”