Panthers players celebrate following the first of Cecil Lester's eight TD passes Saturday night during a 64-51 win against the Alabama Hammers.
ALBANY --- What would a high-profile matchup like this be without a little drama? More importantly, would you honestly have it any other way?
The Alabama Hammers came to the Civic Center on Saturday night as the only other undefeated team in the PIFL, bringing the league’s top-ranked defense to town with them. That means it was imperative that the Panthers got off to one of their signature hot starts.
They didn't disappoint.
Cecil Lester hit John Harris on a 30-yard bomb in the far corner of the end zone on the second play from scrimmage, and it was all Panthers from there, rolling to a 64-51 win to move to 3-0.
“We just had to be aggressive,” said Tito Hannah, who finished the game with a sack to go along with a fumble recovery for a score. “We had to keep going at it. They tried to switch it up with quick passes and screens, but we stuck with our gameplan and kept going."
The matchup was tense all night, with a fight breaking out in the first half involving Hannah and the Hammers' Benji McDowell. Still, the Hammers paid their respects to the two-time defending league champs after the game.
They’re a good front. They’re the best line we’ve seen so far,” said exhausted quarter Russell Hill afterwards. “They’re very active, physical. They were good at timing my snap count.”
The previously unbeaten Hammers (2-1), though, were as advertised, and would not be outdone. Facing third down on their first possession, Hill found Charlie McClain streaking down the sidelines for a 38-yard touchdown of his own, tying the game at 7-7 with just under 11 minutes to go.
Lester and Hill went back and forth all night, despite spirited efforts from both teams’ defenses.
Shortly after the Hammers took their only lead of the night in the second quarter, Panthers star DB Damian Daniels stepped in front of a Hill pass, grabbing his second interception in as many weeks. On the very next play from scrimmage, Lester found Americus native Antwon Cutts in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown. After scoring an uno on the kickoff, Hill had the ball stripped by former Albany State star Demetrie McCray. Hannah recovered the ball in the end zone to push the Panthers’ lead to 22-9.
That awareness led to three Hammers fumbles on the night, two of which were recovered by Albany.
For a moment, however, it seemed that the defense’s aggression would come back to haunt them. Whatever momentum Hannah’s scoop-and-score gave the Panthers seemed to be snatched away within minutes. On the next drive --- a long kickoff return, followed by a pass interference penalty that pushed the Hammers into prime field position --- tensions boiled over. A scuffle broke out between McDowell and Hannah, momentarily causing a pile-up between both teams. Parties from each sideline downplayed the incident as normal for the course of a big game, and no one was ejected.
“It was just a scuffle,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “Just football, nothing major. The refs made the right call (by not throwing anyone out), so I have no complaints about it.”
Hannah explained his side after the game.
“They kept trying to leg-whip me all night,” said an unamused Hannah after the game. “I told the ref they were doing some dirty crap. I told him if they do it again, I’m going after him. It’s all part of the game though, I’m not mad.”
After McClain scored on a reverse from five yards out on the next play, it seemed as though this one could go down to the wire like last week. However, this time, the offense ensured that wouldn’t be necessary. With the score now 22-16, just before halftime, Lester would find Cutts in the back of the end zone on consecutive possessions, stretching the margin to double digits just before the half.
The Hammers wouldn’t go away that easily. Mico McSwain caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Hill with 10 seconds left in the first half, making it a two-possession game once again before intermission.
Scoring before halftime gave the Hammers a glimmer of hope, but after Daniels grabbed his second pick of the game, Lester found former Westover star Antwone Savage, who’d been blanketed for much of the game, for two touchdowns in the second half. Though the Hammers would recover a fumble in the endzone to make it a 57- 51 game with just over five minutes remaining, Harris’ 29-yard touchdown
reception effectively iced the game with 3:45 left in regulation.
“You just can’t turn the ball over in an arena game,” Hammers coach Dean Cokinos said. “Scoring 51 points with all the turnovers we had is hard to do. But the bottom line is we didn’t make enough plays.”
Hill was the first to agree.
“Our guys gave great effort,” Hill said. “We fought to the end, I just made too many mistakes and turnovers. I really hurt the team, it’s hard to overcome as many as we gave up.”
Hill went 16-for-33 for 180 yards, along with five touchdowns, two interceptions and three fumbles. Lester went 23-for-34 for 291 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Panthers' offense was just too much Saturday.
“That’s the beauty of our team,” Lester said. “You can’t just take one person away. And if you do, the other two guys are going to step up. That was their loss. They did what they felt was best. We just had to make sure we made the right reads, the right throws and caught the ball.”
Cutts grabbed 11 receptions for 138 yards and three touchdowns, while Harris caught eight passes for 113 yards and three touchdowns. While Savage finished with only three catches, two of those went for scores and came in clutch moments when the game was getting tight.
“Savage is a great receiver,” Harris said. “He draws a lot of attention. He’s a big-play guy, so they figured if they shut him down, they had a chance. Me and Cutts recognized the defense, so we knew we had to step up and make plays (Saturday).”
The Panthers have a bye week before going on a three-game road stretch, while the Hammers willnext host the Columbus Lions on April 6.