Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester threw five touchdowns and ran for two more in Saturday’s season-opening win against the Swashbucklers, which gave him Player of the Week honors in the PIFL.
WHO: Columbus Lions (1-0) at Albany Panthers (1-0).
WHAT: Defending league champion Panthers’ 2013 home opener.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Albany Civic Center
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
ALBANY — After bringing back their core playmakers, it’s no surprise that the Albany Panthers’ offense put on such a show in their opener.
Several of the team’s top players may already be in their 30s — including nine-year veteran QB Cecil Lester — but the two-time defending champions didn’t show any signs of slowing down in Saturday’s 51-40 victory against the Louisiana Swashbucklers.
In Saturday’s game, Lester threw for 269 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns (two rushing) with a 62 percent completion rate.
Lester attributes the early success to his supporting cast.
“My offensive line and receivers, they did a great job of blocking, giving me time in the pocket to make good decisions,” Lester said. “The receivers just ran good routes, got open, and caught the ball.”
Coach Lucious Davis emphasized the importance of continuity.
“The fact that we’ve been together for three years; we know what we want to do going into most games,” Davis said. “We’re just trying to make sure we execute, take what the other team gives us, and move on from there. Week in, week out.”
Former Westover star and veteran receiver Antwon Savage agreed.
“We’ve been working hard during the offseason and training camp,” Savage said. “We’re trying to pick up where we left off last year. We used to start games off slow, and then the third quarter would be slow for us. So this year, we’ve been trying to come out, play fast, and try to score on every possession.”
BATTLE FOR GA-520: Saturday will mark the fifth time the Panthers and Lions have met in the past two years. Their last meeting was a 60-36 drubbing that clinched a berth in the PIFL Championship.
“It means a lot to beat them,” Davis said. “I love the intensity of (the rivalry). The effort is there from both sides; it’s a real big game. The records don’t matter, when we’re playing doesn’t matter. It’s exciting to coach in a game like this.”
Lester echoed Davis’ sentiments at Wednesday’s practice.
“This rivalry is a measuring stick. If you think you’re good, (this game) is gonna let you know if you are or not,” Lester said. “It’s basically a cross-town rivalry, we’re trying to find out who’s the best in the state.”
Like Lester, Savage has been a part of nearly all of the Panthers-Lions showdowns.
“When we came into the league, they were the team to beat,” said Savage, who caught four touchdowns in the last game. “Right now we’re winning, so it’s always going to be a good challenge when we meet up.”
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK SHOWDOWN: Saturday’s game will feature all three players of the week from the PIFL’s openers last week.
Lester was the Offensive Player of the Week, while Lions QB Garrett Sutphen and kicker Chandler Brooks were the defensive and special teams players of the week.
The Lions will come to Albany fresh off a 58-28 victory over the Knoxville Nighthawks, despite losing four turnovers in the process.
Sutphen went 10-for-22 for 135 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Brooks made seven of his eight extra points in addition to three field goals, while linebacker Justen Rivers tallied two sacks and a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown.
RETURN GAME ROUGHNECKS: In addition to Brooks’ big game in the kicking department, the Lions’ LeRoy Vann scored on a 40-yard return after a missed field goal and added a 46-yard kickoff return last weekend.
Marvin Bohannon also added a 38-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Justen Rivers recovered a blocked field goal in the end zone to add another non-offensive score. Davis was wary about the Lions’ proficiency in the unheralded phase of the game.
“Special teams are important at any level of football. If you can make plays on special teams, whether it’s a blocked field goal or a return, it changes the game,” Davis said. “Our blocked field goal last week gave us great field position early. (Columbus’) special teams have always been good. Ever since we’ve been in the league, I think they’ve led the league in kickoff returns. They always have a good kicker. We have to make sure we’re up to par on special teams, or they’ll take advantage of us.”
D-POW COMES TO TOWN: Rivers made plays all over the field last Saturday. This weekend marks an example of strength meeting strength.
“It’s a must-see game,” said Lester. “It’s one of the most electric games in the league as far as enthusiasm goes. They have some great athletes. Justen is a pretty good linebacker. He gets a lot of pressure and gives us fits.”
Be that as it may, Lester sees no change in their preparations.
“It’s the same as usual,” Lester said. “We’re in attack mode. We’re not going to be stationary and let people corral us. We’re not going to be passive. We’re out on the hunt.”
Savage agreed: “We’re just going to stick with our same game plan. We can’t change anything up because of one player. Once we come out, you’ve got to match up with us, whether it’s man coverage or zone coverage. Our main goal is to play our game and capitalize on every possession.
Saturday’s matchup with the Lions marks the first home game of the season.
“We’ve got 5,000 tickets out of the system right now. We’re hoping for 6,000 by kickoff,” general manager Will Carter said.
“Ticket sales are going great, we’ve been promoting this game for a while now ... I’m expecting a great crowd. What better way to start your home schedule than against an in-state rival? I expect Albany to come out in full force.”