Panthers hope win will come out of longest road trip of year

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WHO: Albany Panthers (4-3) at Lehigh Valley Steelhawks (4-4).

WHAT: Panthers looking for second straight win.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Bethlehem, Pa.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

ALBANY — The Albany Panthers sure hope this road trip is worth it.

After nearly 1,000 miles of traveling, when the Panthers take the field in Bethlehem, Pa., tonight, there are quite a few factors which will play into whether Albany gets its second straight victory or become losers of three of its last four.

How much a toll will the longest road trip of the year — by far — take on the team? Which Panthers offense will show up? And how will Albany (4-3) fare against a franchise it has never faced before?

“It’s a fast-paced offense,” said Panthers defensive back Damian Daniels. “It’s kind of unique for the arena style, but it’s working for them, so we’re going to have to stop it.”

Added QB Cecil Lester: “They control the ball well and they play well at home. They don’t have many turnovers, and whey make a lot of high-percentage plays.”

The 4-4 Lehigh Valley Steelhawks are on a two-game winning streak in which they’ve averaged 61.5 points per game, and quarterback Adam Bednarik and backup Hunter Wanket have combined for 11 total touchdowns and just three picks. Wanket earned PIFL Offensive Player of the Week honors in Week 10.

The Steelhawks also lead the league in time of possession and have a red-hot receiving tandem of Tyrone Collins and Tom Gilson. Collins and Gilson average eight catches per game, and a combined 162 yards per game.

The Panthers’ defense can counter that.

Albany defensive end Tito Hannah earned PIFL Defensive Player of the Week after notching two sacks, a forced fumble and a safety during Saturday’s home win against Louisiana.

Albany can make opposing teams cough up the ball, but now they’re facing a Steelhawks team that rarely does.

Steelhawks head coach Chris Thompson was quick to dismiss their relative absence of miscues on the season, given the unpredictably of the stat from week-to-week.

“Some of the (turnover margin) has been a stroke of luck,” he said. “Sometimes the ball bounces your way, sometimes it doesn’t. The thing for us has been making the most of those turnovers and opportunities.”

“Our philosophy is to just score, every time we have the ball, whether it’s a one-play or a ten-play drive. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, that keeps the opposing offense off the field. Although (time of possession) doesn’t matter much in the arena leagues. We just try to maximize everything we can get every time we touch the ball.”

Lehigh Valley also does something most arena teams do not: run the ball.

“Utilizing the running game is key. Not too many teams run the ball, but we believe in forcing the defense to prepare for both the pass and the run,” Thompson said. “We feel like we have some great athletes that can handle the run game, and an offensive line that can get the job done up front.

The Panthers will be ready — run or pass.

“We have to work on tackling well,” Daniels said. “From watching film, they don’t go downfield that much. Most of their yardage comes after the catch. We’re going to have to rally to the ball on defense and make sure we tackle well.”

Think tonight could be a smash-mouth-type of ground-and-pound game? Think again. This one has all the makings of a shootout.

The Steelhawks rank dead last in pass defense — and Albany loves to throw the ball as evidenced by Lester’s 262-yard, four-touchdown game last week. Lester ranks second in the PIFL in TD passes (29), second in passing yards (1,601) and first in passing attempts (249).

“When we leave that field, we want to be leaving after an extra point attempt, not a turnover,” Lester said. “That’s the most we can do against an explosive team that controls the ball.”

Thompson said his team knows what it’s up against — and he’s slightly concerned for his defense, which has struggled at times this year.

“Defense hasn’t been our strong suit,” he said. “We’ve had a change at defensive coordinator in the past few weeks, along with some personnel changes. The good thing is that we’ve started to find an identity on defense in the last couple of games. Hopefully we can continue to make plays on defense to continue our winning ways.”

Still, it may be up to Albany’s defense to control Lehigh Valley, no matter what the offense does.

“Albany’s defense is great,” Thompson said. “They’ve got great team speed and experience. Damian Daniels has been around for a number of years now. We’ve got our work cut out for us. The good thing about it is whether it’s Hunter or Adam at quarterback, or a combination, with the receivers that we have, we’ve got some consistency there.”

Of course, Albany may be in Wanket’s and Bednarik’s grill all night because the Steelhawks have allowed a league-high 21 sacks on the season.

“If we put the heat on him and make him force a few throws, we’ll be fine,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said.

The winner of Saturday’s matchup will take sole possession of third place in PIFL standings, and since the Panthers only have one more road game on the season, they could assure an easy road the rest of the way with a win tonight.

“I think it’s like any other game. For us, when you lose three out of four games by less than two points like we have this season, you can get a chip on your shoulder as a team,” Davis said. “There’s still a lot of football to be played.”