Panthers fullback Derrrick Wimbush just makes it to the goal line during the second quarter Saturday at the Civic Center. Wimbush got the Panthers on the board finally in the second quarter with this one-yard TD dive. The Panthers won the game on a last-second FG, 40-37. (email@example.com)
ALBANY — First the crowd chuckled.
Then they roared.
And the hugs and handshakes came a bit later.
That’s the best way to describe Ryan Gates’ slapstick, slap-happy ending to Saturday’s Panthers’ home opener win against rival Columbus — a victory that didn’t come until Gates kicked a 28-yard field goal with 1.9 seconds left to lift Albany to a 40-37 victory.
Gates said he wasn’t nervous.
How could he be? He had just brought down the house with a belly-laugh when he fell quite promptly on his derriere in front of a large crowd at the Albany Civic Center.
Gates was warming up in the middle of the field when he slipped and — wham! — landed on his backside.
“I heard them laughing,’’ said Gates, who could laugh about it after the game. “To tell you the truth, after I fell on my butt in front of everyone, that kind of calmed me down.’’
Gates was asked if he might incorporate the slip-and-fall act the next time he needs to make a game-winning field goal.
“Oh no,’’ he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen again.’’
Gates has been perfect in two games, nailing every PAT in the young season, and he booted two unos on kickoffs to give the Panthers a lift on a night when everything seemed to go wrong.
Good teams win games like this, and that’s just what the Panthers, the two-time defending champs who are trying for a three-peat this season, did Saturday night. On a bad night, they did enough that was right to pull out the win against their biggest rival and win their fourth home opener in a row and improve to 2-0 for the season.
The Panthers had to come back three times in the final minutes and made a huge defensive stand to keep the Lions (1-1) out of the end zone in the final 60 seconds.
Columbus had to settle for an 18-yard field goal with 12 seconds left to knot the score at 37-37, but the Panthers avoided overtime with a last-second drive.
Columbus backup QB Garrett Sutphen had to take over for the Lions after starter Marcus Jones limped off the field with 45 seconds left, and the Panthers held their ground to keep Columbus out of the end zone and then scored in a handful of seconds to win it.
Cecil Lester, who said he had one of the worst nights of his arena football career, made the play of the night when he hit John Harris with a 25-yard pass over the middle to set up Gates' game-winning kick.
“Cecil is our guy,'” Harris, a former Americus star, said. “It was just one of those nights when he was off, but he came through and made the plays when he had to.”
Lester, who was the PIFL’s Offensive Player of the Week after throwing five TD passes in the season-opening 50-41 win against Louisiana, had a rough night in his first game at home, completing just 17 of 37 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns. He completed only nine passes in the first half.
“I don't understand it,'” Lester said. “It was just one of those days. It just happened to be a bad day. But we won. We're resilient. We kept pushing and we stayed together. We're a family.”
He said he had no doubt that Gates would make the game-winner.
“I knew he was going to make it. He makes those all the time,'” Lester said.
Panthers coach Lucious Davis felt the same way about Gates.
“I was very confident. I wasn't worried about him making the kick,” he said. '”It wasn't a hard kick. He didn't have to worry about the speakers (above the field). The only thing I was concerned about was the snap and the hold.
“He had a big game. He stepped up and he made a couple of unos. He made an uno to start the second half that gave us a lift. I told them at halftime that as bad as we had played that we were still up by a point.”
They were. Albany led, 14-13, at halftime, and it could have been more.
The game started late (7:40 instead of 7:30) and so did the Panthers, who didn’t score a point in the first quarter. They finally took the lead when Gates kicked the first extra point of the night to make it 7-6 after Derrick Wimbush scored on a 1-yard run. The Panthers led, 14-13, after Lester hit former Albany State star Clenton Rafe with a 26-yard TD pass and could have been up by two touchdowns, but Wimbush was stopped for no gain at the Columbus 1-yard-line on the final play of the first half. Lester was only 9 of 23 in the first half.
Davis said Lester's numbers, although not sterling, had more to do with Columbus than his quarterback.
“You have to give Columbus credit,” he said. “That was probably the best defense I have seen in the three years I've been here.”
Gates opened the second half with an uno to lift the Panthers to a 15-13 lead, and Albany defensive back Corey Rue picked off a pass and returned it to the Columbus 4-yard-line to set up a 1-yard TD run by Lester. Gates’ PAT made it a 22-13 game with 4:37 left in the third, and he followed the PAT with his second uno to lift Albany to a 23-13 lead.
Columbus came back as Jones connected with Leroy Vann for a touchdown late in the third and then hit Maurice Dupree with a 15-yard TD with 11:21 left in the game to give Columbus a 27-23 lead. But Albany snapped back when Wimbush broke a tackle and scored on a 2-yard run with 6:49 left in the game to set up the final furious minutes.
Columbus took a 34-30 lead with 3:03 left in the game when Jones hit Dupree, who was wide open, with a 40-yard TD pass on a fourth-down play from the Columbus 10-yard-line that looked like a back-breaker.
But Lester answered with a 24-yard TD pass to Americus’ Antwon Cutts, who broke a tackle and made a leave-them-in-the-dust move at the 10 to lift the Panthers to a 37-34 lead with 1:51 left.
Then came the final minute and Gates' big fall and bigger kick.
“This game says a lot,” Davis said. “We found a way to win.”
Albany will next host Alabama (2-0) on Saturday, and then the Panthers won’t play at home again until May 11 after three road games and three byes.