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Experienced Lion tamers

Americus native and Panthers starting wideout John Harris gets loose with his teammates during practice earlier this week at the Albany Civic Center, which will play host tonight in the team’s 2013 home opener against the Columbus Lions. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Americus native and Panthers starting wideout John Harris gets loose with his teammates during practice earlier this week at the Albany Civic Center, which will play host tonight in the team’s 2013 home opener against the Columbus Lions. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Panthers call for ‘Black Out’ for tonight’s 2013 home opener

ALBANY – The back-to-back champion Albany Panthers take Phoebe Field tonight against the in-state rival Columbus Lions, and the franchise wants to see the fans “Black Out” the Albany Civic Center.

“Earlier in the week, our guys made it apparent that they want all Panthers fans in the house Saturday night to wear black,” GM Will Carter said. “It doesn’t really matter what it is, Panthers apparel or not, just put on as much black as you can.”

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

Want To Go, Listen or Follow Online?

WHO: Columbus Lions (1-0) at Albany Panthers (1-0).

WHAT: Defending league champion Panthers’ 2013 home opener.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Albany Civic Center

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

TICKETS: (229) 430-5200 or visit ticketmasters.com

LIVE UPDATES: Go online and log on to: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.

ALBANY — The next chapter in the Albany Panthers’ quest for a three-peat comes tonight when they’ll host in-state rival Columbus Lions.

And if recent history means anything, don’t be surprised if Albany has Columbus’ number once again.

The Panthers are 7-4 lifetime against their bitter foes from up the road, and if Albany can add one more win to that tally tonight, it will start its defense of its Professional Indoor Football League title 2-0.

Of course, when it comes to Columbus, stats don’t mean a whole lot to Albany coach Lucious Davis.

“To be honest with you, it really doesn’t mean anything. They’re good games. They’re tough games. So, you can look at it both ways, on one hand, we’ve beat them seven times, but on the flip side, they’ve beat us more than any other team in the league,” said Davis, the fourth-year coach whose team demolished Columbus, 60-36, in their final meeting of season, propelling Albany into the title game, while Columbus went home. “That 7-4 record lets you know the games are very competitive.”

On Friday, Lions coach Jason Gibson made no attempt to downplay the significance of tonight’s game, even if it’s just the second of the season for both franchises.

“It’s always a big game. It’s become a real rivalry,” he said. “One of the things you notice, as a coach, is their defense. They’ve played great football for the past few years, and that’s something we’re going to have to overcome.”

Pleasantries between opposing coaches before a rivalry game? It appears that with the growing rivalry, a respect has also formed.

Davis, the former defensive coordinator for the now-defunct South Georgia Wildcats, takes special pride in that side of the ball. That’s why the Panthers have had the No. 1-ranked defense in most of the top categories in the league the past two seasons. And while Davis and Gibson have butted heads over the years during the course of the rivalry, he said Friday he appreciated the Lions head coach taking notice of one of the keys to Albany’s success.

“It means a lot. I believe that we share the same amount of respect for one another and our teams. The rivalry isn’t between the coaches. It’s more so because of the proximity of the teams and with the fans,” Davis said. “It means a lot that they respect us in that way, because we have the same respect for them as well.”

The key matchups on both sides of the ball tonight are almost endless — but it starts with Albany’s ability to shut down Columbus’ special-teams nightmares, Leroy Vann and Justen Rivers.

Davis emphasized the importance of special teams this week in practice — and for good reason. Vann was a catalyst in the Lions’ win last week — a 58-28 drubbing of Knoxville — returning a missed field goal 40 yards and a kickoff 46 yards for scores. If the game happens to come down to the wire, Lions kicker Chandler Baker added 10 points last week and has proved to be a reliable threat in the kicking game, going 7-for-8 on extra point attempts.

Rivers, meanwhile, blocked a field goal and recovered the ball for a touchdown last week.

Gibson didn’t mince words when asked about whether the Lions’ special teams carried the team in last week’s win after the offense struggled at times.

“Special teams has been huge for us so far,” he said.

Davis is aware.

“If you watched the game, where they scored those touchdowns, we’ve got to do a better job blocking,” he said. “We have to make sure we protect well. Just taking care of the little things, blocking, covering your lane, it’s a matter of executing and doing what we’re supposed to do.”

On defense, keep on eye on the Lions’ starting quarterback Garret Sutphen against Panthers defensive backs Corey Rue, former Albany State star Demetrie McCray and pickmaster Damian Daniels, who led the league in interceptions a year ago.

There’s no doubt the Panthers’ high-powered offense — which scored on every possession but one in each half during last week’s 50-41 season-opening win against Louisiana — will be up to the task tonight.

Now it’s the defense’s turn to assert its dominance — and with an error-prone Sutphen under center, that could be easy to do.

Sutphen turned the ball over four times in the Lions’ win against Knoxville, three of those being interceptions.

And the Panthers’s defense is licking its chops after watching the game film.

“That’s our gameplan. Our gameplan is to put pressure on their quarterback,” Davis said. “Hopefully, we can disguise our coverages and mix them up, try to force him into make some errors”

Gibson said Sutphen simply cannot have a repeat performance — or the Lions will be tucking their tails in defeat on their way back to Columbus.

“I tell my guys, whether it’s PlayStation, NFL, CFL, or PIFL, the team that forces turnovers will be the team that wins,” he said Friday. “We know that if we turn the ball over against (the Panthers), we don’t have a chance.”

Rue leads the team in tackles, while McCray scored a two-point conversion after intercepting a pass on an extra-point attempt last week.

And if the defense does its part once again, the pressure on starting QB and reigning PIFL Player of the Week Cecil Lester melts away. Plus, it never hurts to have two of the league’s most proven playmakers on the Panthers’ side in former ASU star Clenton Rafe and former Westover and Oklahoma star Antwone Savage — the Panthers’ leading receiver last season.

But while Albany has a host of veteran players that can get the job done, there are several question marks about the Lions’ defense coming into the game. The Lions will start five rookies on the defensive side of the ball.

“We’ve remade our defense this year. We’ve got a lot of young guys,” Gibson said. “We’re young, and we’re still looking to figure out the scheme, it’ll be tough for us to overcome (Albany’s) experience. It’s going to come down to offensive and defensive lines, same as when you’re playing anybody else. The quarterback who loses is the one who gets put on his back. If you can protect your quarterback, you can win”

For Columbus to have a shot at victory, it will be crucial for those players they do have with experience — like second-year players like Marvin Bohannon and Anthony Shutt — to try and frustrate Savage and Rafe early in the game. Shutt picked off two passes in the Lions’ opener, while rookie Thornton and Bohannon are tied for the team lead in tackles.

Savage sounded confident in practice this week when asked about facing the young Lions’ defense.

“I think we’ll be fine if we go out and execute. Whatever they’ve got, we’ve got something to counteract it,” he said.

Davis agreed.

“I think that’s an advantage for us,” he said.