WHO: Albany Panthers (3-2) at Richmond Raiders (4-2).
WHAT: Defending league champion Panthers try to end two-game skid..
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Richmond, Va.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
ALBANY — After dropping two straight games following an undefeated start to the season, two off weeks have given the defending champion Albany Panthers (3-2) ample time to recuperate, regroup and reconsider their approach before they travel to Richmond to take on the PIFL second-place Raiders (4-2) on Saturday.
After a thrilling 3-0 start to the season, the Panthers dropped back-to-back games, falling to Knoxville and Alabama. Those losses dropped them alone in first place to third in league standings.
The losses are still baffling to every member of the Panthers, who are the two-time defending league champions.
The Panthers’ offense scored season lows of 38 and 28 points in those two losing efforts, while the defense gave up 51 in their loss to the Hammers on April 13. Despite the losing streak, the Panthers still rank in the top three in the PIFL’s offensive and defensive statistics, and star quarterback Cecil Lester threw eight touchdowns in the last two contests.
Since the team hasn’t seemed to miss a beat statistically, what gives?
“We just haven’t been playing to our potential at certain spots,” linebacker Larry Edwards said Wednesday at practice. “As a team, we need to refocus and get back on the same page that we’ve been on, as far as practice goes. We demand a lot from each other, so I think it’s on us to get everybody back on the same page. This (game Saturday against Richmond) is going to show everybody that we’re still the same team, the same dominant force. We just had a couple of chinks in our armor, but we’re good.”
Lester echoed those sentiments.
“Things happen, it’s the game of football,” said the veteran. “You set goals, but if you don’t accomplish them, you don’t quit. We set a goal to win them all, and that’s not going to happen right now, but we still have the opportunity to reach our next goals. We just have to refocus and keep pushing to get better every week.”
Panthers coach Lucious Davis was slightly less positive about what’s clearly been a dismal last month around Panthers headquarters.
“We just didn’t play well,” Davis said. “That’s the bottom line. To turn it around, we just have to do things right. Competing, executing, that’s all we have to do.”
Saturday’s meeting will be the first of the year between Albany and Richmond, which would drop to third in the PIFL standings and be overtaken by the Panthers if Albany’s able to go on the road and pull off a win.
A FEW NEW FACES: As the adage goes, those who can’t change themselves, can’t change anything.
The Panthers are well aware of that.
In an effort to right the ship after the losing streak, the Panthers made a few roster changes during the bye weeks, releasing defensive linemen Anton Ceasar and Marcus Johnson, while signing nose tackle David Rybinski, defensive back Torez Jones and kicker Mere Trout. Trout will fill the void left by starting kicker Ryan Gates, who was placed on IR last month following a groin injury.
Jones, a 6-foot-1 190-pound defensive back from Wilson, N.C., hopes to add playmaking ability to a secondary that leads the league in pass defense. In his senior year at Western Carolina, he earned first-team All Southern Conference honors after snagging seven interceptions, breaking up five passes and making 62 tackles.
“I’m just really glad to be here,” Jones said. “I was in camp with the (AFL’s) Utah Blaze and had some hamstring trouble. I got released there (before getting the call from Albany).”
When asked what he brought to the table, skill-wise, Jones said: “I can (create) turnovers, you know, being a ballhawk. I just do my job, being one-eighth of the defense, playing my role to the best of my abilities.”
Jones had his pick of lower-tiered arena team after being cut, but he said he wanted to join a contender.
“There’s some (pressure), but it’s a good type,” Jones said. “When you come into a program where things are set in a winning way, where there’s already a winning attitude, you have to develop quickly.”
Rybinski, a 6-4, 300-pound native of Saskatchewan, Canada, is another Utah Blaze product. In his first year at the University of Saskatchewan, he recorded 16.5 tackles and two sacks. Rybinski looks to add another force on the Panther defensive front.
“I’ve got a motor that just doesn’t stop. I always feel the need to prove myself, and to show my team that I’m worthy to be on the field with them,” he said during one of his first practices in Albany on Wednesday. “There’s definitely the pressure to perform, and that’s the kind of challenge that I really embrace. I’m looking forward to getting the team that third championship.”
The Panthers veterans are already impressed with the new additions.
“We’ve had a couple of practices together, (and) they seem like they fit with our scheme pretty well,” Edwards said. “They match up with our style of football. I think they’ll benefit us quite well. It’s going to be a couple of changes this game, some new faces, but that’s always good. The new energy should motivate us to get some more wins.”
Lester said the newcomers have already expressed a desire to turn the season around, starting this week.
“I don’t know if it’s pressure or them having the attitude to step their game up every day,” Lester said. “I know they don’t want to be the reason the team had a drop-off. They’re going to come to practice every day and show us what they got and that they can be a part of a championship team.”
Davis said each player was brought in to perform a specific role.
“All they have to do is just play,” Davis said. “If they compete, that’s all we ask them to do. We’re not looking for anything spectacular from them. We can’t win the game with just one or two players. It takes a team effort. In my eyes, there’s no pressure on them. I’m hoping they feel the same way.”
INJURY UPDATE: Though the time off gave the core skill position players time to recover from nagging injuries, one unsung hero of the Panthers season so far suffered a setback recently.
Gates, who kicked the game-winner in the Panthers’ first matchup with the first-place Alabama Hammers (5-2), pulled his groin and his return this season is questionable.
Aside from Gates’ injury, the Panthers seem as healthy as they’ve been all year heading into Saturday night.
“That’s really the only injury that hurt us,” Davis said of Gates’ groin. “Our receivers were banged up for the last couple of weeks, but they’re OK right now. They were healthy enough for us to win, but we just didn’t execute in other places. Injury-wise, we’re healthy. We just have to be ready.”
Lester is glad he’ll have all his weapons this week.
“Injuries affect us the same way they affect everyone else,” said Lester. “When one person goes down, the next person has to step up. That’s the mentality we’ve always had, and that’s the mentality we have to keep.”