The good news for the Tucson Sugar Skulls (3-3) in their 55-41 loss to the Arizona Rattlers (6-0) is the 14-point loss was the closest margin of victory for their in-state rival, which has beaten opponents by an average of 32 points per game and is tied for the best record in the Indoor Football League.
“If you want a moral victory, it shows that we can play with them. We have the ability to play with them and match up with them,” said Sugar Skulls coach Marcus Coleman.
“Regardless of how much experience (the Rattlers) have, it’s still up to us to go out and play the kind of ball we know we can play.”
Even Sugar Skulls owner and Rattlers coach Kevin Guy recognized the fighting effort Tucson put up Sunday in front of 4,138 fans at the Tucson Arena.
“This was our toughest game of the year so far. … Tucson can play,” Guy said.
Guy made sure to soak in the moment before he coached against the team he owns in its home arena.
“Before the game, I walked around to look at everything and the setup, but once the game gets going, the juices are flowing and the competitive part comes out,” Guy said.
The bad news for Tucson? Turnovers and “self-inflicted wounds” were once again the thorn in the side for the Sugar Skulls’ first home loss of the season.
The previous matchup between Arizona and Tucson in Phoenix opened up for the Rattlers with a blocked field goal recovered in the end zone and a fumble recovery in the red zone, which resulted in a 14-point swing before halftime.
Sunday had a similar narrative, but the Sugar Skulls were tied at 21 with Arizona heading into halftime. History repeated itself in the second half when the Rattlers blocked Diego Marquez’s 51-yard field goal attempt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.
By the end of the third quarter, Arizona led Tucson 48-35 and never looked back.
“They’ve all been similar,” Coleman said. “This game is similar to the last one. We were just in this one a little bit longer until the blocked field goal and the turnover. The games were kind of identical unfortunately and that’s on us as coaches to get it right and we will. I’m not worried about that part.”
In his second start of the season under center, Tucson quarterback Jake Medlock finished the night completing 11 of 23 passes for 168 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. At halftime, Medlock was 6 of 10 for 120 yards with three touchdowns.
One of his interceptions in the fourth quarter was caught by Rattlers defensive back Phillip Henry and was returned for a 49-yard touchdown, which was the final score of the game for Arizona.
“Early on he played well. Obviously the two turnovers don’t help. It was just Jake pressing a little bit and relying too much on his arm and not enough of his head,” Coleman said.
Rico Brown, who finished with three catches for 59 yards and a season-high two touchdowns, emerged as Medlock’s top deep-threat target.
Brown has three touchdowns in two games against the Rattlers this season, but Medlock’s two interceptions and Marquez’s three missed field goals and a point-after touchdown attempt kept the Sugar Skulls from getting a rhythm.
“We had some turnovers and we were really just shooting ourselves in the leg. It was self-inflicted,” Brown said. “The self-inflicted wounds hurt us and it was kind of too late to pick it back up. We lost momentum.”
Tucson recorded 259 yards of total offense while Arizona had 233. Compared to Medlock’s 168-yard night, Rattlers quarterback Jeff Ziemba had 126 yards and four touchdowns.
Arizona had 16 more rushing yards than Tucson. Both teams had similar production, but turnovers proved to be the story for the Sugar Skulls, who have lost two straight.
“We hurt ourselves bad. (Arizona) cannot play with us at all. We shoot ourselves in the foot all the time and that’s the only way they can keep up with us,” said Tucson cornerback Micah Eugene, who had six tackles and a pass breakup.
Fortunately for the Sugar Skulls, with the second half of the season approaching, these teams play two more games against each other, once in Phoenix and the last contest back at the Tucson Arena on May 25.
For Coleman and the Sugar Skulls, regrouping and going back to the basics is what’s on the agenda as Tucson has a short week before visiting the Quad City Steamwheelers on Saturday in Moline, Illinois.
“It’s a matter of us going back to the drawing board, moving pieces around, getting new pieces in — whatever it is — we’ll get it right,” Coleman said.