Panthers receiver Antwon Cutts, right, fights for extra yardage against Alabama on Saturday night in the Civic Center. Cutts and the Panthers had a big night to improve to 3-0 with a 64-51 win against the previously undefeated Hammers.
ALBANY — With a bye week and three-game road trip looming — not to mention the Alabama Hammers’ formidable defense coming to the Civic Center — Saturday night seemed like a good time for the Panthers to switch things up a little.
Before Saturday night’s game, the Hammers led the league in total defense (184 yards per game), pass defense (160.5 ypg), scoring defense (25.5 ppg), and team sacks (10). The Panthers lit up the scoreboard, with Cecil Lester carving the Hammers up for 291 yards through the air and eight TDs on their way to a 64-51 win.
With the Hammers keyed in on his primary target, Antwone Savage, Lester took what the defense gave him. Antwon Cutts and John Harris combined for 251 yards and six touchdowns.
“We saw some things on film that we wanted to take advantage of,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said after the win. “The guys executed. We called a few new plays and guys ended up wide open.”
Cutts was baffled by the Hammers’ gameplan.
“I don’t know what they were doing,” he said, “It was like they were forgetting about John and I. Savage is good, so we had to pick up his slack. It’s a team sport. If (Savage) couldn’t get it done, we have to rally around him and help him out.
For the second week in a row, the Panthers’ faithful were on the edge of their Civic Center seats late in the game.
Though they led by 20 points on four separate occasions, a late fumble in the end zone made it a 57-51 game with 5:02 left in regulation — an eternity in arena ball.
“We had to put the game away,” said Cutts. “You can score so fast in arena league. We knew it wasn’t over. We just had to play like we were behind.”
Lester added: “We always want to protect our home field. We wanted to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack going into our bye week.”
The game had its moments. inclkuding a fight that broke out between the two teams, who were battling for first place in the PIFL. The Panthers are now 3-0 and Alabama is 2-1.
Lester’s 29-yard bomb to Harris proved to be the go-ahead score, and while it was thrilling, it wasn’t exactly surprising. Big plays in the clutch are something Panthers fans have come to expect.
“We try to keep our spirits up,” said Harris. “Everybody encourages everybody else on the sideline. We know if we stay ahead two or three touchdowns, we’ve got a chance to win. We believe in each other. We’re a family on and off the field.”
Everyone has the faith.
“We’ve got full confidence in our offense. They can score at any time, so as long as the defense does our job, the offense is just fine,’’ defensive lineman Tito Hannah said after the game.
With less than two minutes left to play, Hannah and the Panthers’ defense stood their ground to preserve the win. The Hammers were driving, until Corey Rue tackled Russell Hill behind the line on fourth-and-goal.
Don’t let the high-flying offense fool you. An inspired effort from the Panthers’ defensive line was just as instrumental as the high-powered passing game.
Hannah made 1 1/2 ackles for losses and had a fumble recovery, while Damian Daniels grabbed two interceptions, pulling him even closer to the indoor league career record. The defensive line’s energy led to four botched snaps by the Hammers, three of which the home team recovered.
“The defense played well,” Davis said with pride. “They created a lot of turnovers for us, and we were able to capitalize on them. I was proud of the way they played. I asked them for more aggression and they responded.”
With the Panther defense keeping them ahead in the turnover margin, there looks to be few offenses in the league that can match their pace.
BIG CAT BYE WEEK
The win Saturday night marked an unblemished first third of the schedule for the defending champs. According to the team, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Between a three game road-trip and two more bye weeks, it’ll be May 4th the next time the Panthers play in the Civic Center.
“We wanted to have a great game for the home fans,” beamed Harris. “It’s going to be a long time before we come back.”
“We’re going to chill this week,” Cutts said. “I’m just glad we don’t have to go through it with a sour taste in our mouth. We can rest with our heads up.”
“Our goal was to go into the bye week with a win,” said Davis. “Now, we can go in and rest. There were a couple of guys who got banged up, so we’ve got a week to heal up and come back.”
Lester was thankful for the bye week, but made sure to note that there were still goals on the horizon.
“When we get on the road, we’ve got to treat it like it’s home too. This win was good just to close out the first trimester of the season. Much needed rest for a lot of us. We’ve been giving it all we have. It’s time to go heal some of these nicks and bruises.”