Panthers wideout Clenton Rafe, a former Albany State Ram, caught five touchdowns Saturday against Lehigh Valley, but it wasn’t enough to rescue Albany from a 53-49 loss in the Civic Center.
ALBANY — The Albany Panthers grabbed a playoff spot Saturday night in the Civic Center.
It just wasn’t the one they were hoping for.
With a 53-49 loss to the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks in the closing seconds, the Panthers failed to clinch the No. 2 seed in the PIFL playoffs — which would have guaranteed at least one home playoff game — and dropped to the No. 4 seed, which means Albany will have to win back-to-back road games to secure a third straight league championship.
After this week’s regular season finale against rival Columbus — which doesn’t have any impact on the league standings — the Panthers will travel to Birmingham to face the number No. 1 seed Alabama.
“It was a tough loss,” said Panthers receiver and former Albany State star Clenton Rafe, who led the team with five touchdown catches Saturday. “We wanted that first playoff game at the house, but all season, we’ve been fighting through adversity. This is just another example. We just got to come back (this) week and get after it again.”
In the loss, however, the offense was as explosive as ever. After re-signing defensive back Levance Richmond, the Panthers were able to give last week’s PIFL defensive player of the week Antwon Cutts more snaps on offense.
“Defensive back is second-nature to me,” Cutts said. “They put me back in my comfort zone, so I’m just going to do what I do.”
The WR group of Cutts, Johnny Lester and Rafe gave the Steelhawks’ defense fits all game,
The Panthers stressed the importance of staying ahead in the turnover margin during the week, but surrendered two on Saturday, interceptions in the third and fourth quarters.
“It’s just a sour taste in our mouth right now,” receiver John Harris said. “It’s not that much I can say, we just didn’t execute plays on offense like we should have.”
Panthers coach Lucious Davis said turnovers were the difference in the game.
“We have to take care of the football,” Davis said. “When the defense gave us a stop up three points, we’ve got to take that ball down the field and score. We can’t make risky throws. If we make the right throws, it’s a different game.”
It wasn’t just the offense that left the field disappointed.
“It was a very sluggish game for me, speaking individually,” Richmond said. “As a unit, we’ve got to come together more. For about three or four of us, it was our first game of the year, so we might as well say we’re a new team.”
Whether this new team has the resilience to win on the road against its toughest possible competitor is yet to be seen. Although the Panthers realize they’ve struggled in the past on the road, they know deep down that no matter the opponent, champions must win away from home.
“It was a big game,” Lester said of the loss, “but we still have a chance to make it happen.”
Four of the Panthers’ road losses were by four points or less, the sole exception being their first visit to the Von Braun Center in Birmingham to face the Hammers, in which they lost 64-51.
“It’s eight-on-eight,” Harris said. “Home or away, we feel like if we come out and play that type of ball, it doesn’t matter. But (Saturday), we just let one slip away.”
Despite the tough task on their horizon two weeks from now, veterans and fresh faces alike are optimistic.
“We still got to win,” defensive lineman Tito Hannah said after the loss. “It means a lot to lose, because of momentum, but we’ve got to put it behind ourselves and keep moving. We have to keep our composure, and most definitely stop turning the ball over. If we can do that, we’ll be good.”
Cutts believed recent calls by the officials made it even more difficult away from the Albany Civic Center.
“You could say the referees haven’t been on our side,” Cutts said about playing on the road, “but we’ve just got to blow them out so the referees won’t have anything to do with it.”
The defense had a new look on Saturday; with Richmond returning to Albany for his first game with the team this year, along with defensive lineman Alton Pettway and defensive back Dontarrius Thomas being recently added to the roster.
“We got some new players who are concentrating on getting back in shape,” Hannah said. “When they do that, we can all gel together.”
Fellow newcomer Richmond agreed.
“We’re trying to collaborate and be more cohesive,” Richmond said of his defense. “We’ve got to treat it as a game, home or away, we still have to go out there and play 60 minutes. The crowd could be a disadvantage, but we have to fight through it. Hopefully, we’ll come together and go over the things we messed up on.
“We’ve got one of the best offenses in the league. One of the best defenses also. We’re just trying to put it all together in a short period of time. If we can do that, we think we should be hoisting another championship.”