Sugar Skulls defenders Rayshawn Henderson and Keith Jones Jr. drag down Barnstormers quarterback Daquan Neal in a recent game.

After the Tucson Sugar Skulls toppled down the Indoor Football League standings following a four-game losing streak, a “new season” began and the team’s mindset switched to playoff mode.

The Sugar Skulls’ winless month of April put the club at 3-5 and out of the playoff picture until Tucson completed the four-game season sweep over the San Diego Strike Force in back-to-back weeks. Now in sixth place and slotted as the final playoff team, Tucson has four games remaining with Quad City two games back in the loss column.

“We need to win as many games as we can in order for us to get to the playoff round, but right now we have that mindset that every loss is a detriment to what we’re trying to do,” said Sugar Skulls head coach Marcus Coleman. “We have to treat every game like it’s a playoff game and make sure we’re executing at the highest level. We put ourselves in this position so that’s why we have to have that mindset from here on out. Playoffs started two weeks ago.”

Tucson (5-5) looks to finish another sweep Saturday night on the road in North Dakota against the Bismarck Bucks (2-7) and retain a winning record for the first time since early April. It’ll be the first matchup between the two teams since the Sugar Skulls’ home opener, when Tucson cruised by Bismarck 62-42. In that game, Tucson quarterback Matt Behrendt scored eight touchdowns and earned IFL Offensive Player of the Week honors.

When the teams first met, Tucson had one of the top offenses in the IFL and a defense that gave up an average of 204 yards and 43 points. Fast forward to the final stretch of the season, and the Sugar Skulls have the third-best offense in the league, averaging 265.2 yards per game. The defense? Tucson is ranked eighth in total defense and last in passing yards allowed per game (172.7).

With a secondary of Tucsonan Cam Gaddis, ex-LSU Tiger Micah Eugene, Dee Maggitt Jr. and Kasey Johnson, the Sugar Skulls coughed up 208 passing yards a game in April. They have only given up 128 per contest in their first two games in May.

Coleman’s solution to Tucson’s woes was to simplify the defense and adjust the playbook for the secondary to be in better spots to make plays.

“We dumbed down a lot of things and took out some things we had earlier,” Coleman said. “We just wanted to simplify the game plan and run so guys could pick up on it and just go out there and play fast. The easier they see things and make decisions, the more plays they can make.”

Last week against the Strike Force, the Sugar Skulls scored 21 points off two fumbles and an interception in a 65-48 win. Sugar Skulls defensive tackle Rayshawn Henderson recorded his first interception after a deflected pass by Tucson native and defensive end Robert Metz.

“I saw the ball rotate in midair slowly and I told myself to just go,” said Henderson, who earned Defensive Player of the Week after recording five tackles, a fumble and a tackle for loss against San Diego. “(Defensive linemen) don’t get the ball that much so I was kind of scared. I jumped, closed my eyes a little bit and I rolled over and was just excited to celebrate with my teammates so it was beautiful.”

The 6-foot, 290-pound Henderson was added to the roster in April and has played in every game so far since he replaced Shakore Philip, who was released and recently signed with the Strike Force. Over six games, Henderson is second among Tucson’s defensive linemen with 19 tackles.

“He brings a high football IQ and he understands what we’re trying to do up front. He’s gotten better every single week,” said Coleman. “He’s always asking us questions and trying to get better every day. When you have a guy like that, it trickles down and it engulfs the entire group. He’s done a good job of coming in and taking care of business.”

Bismarck has won two of its last three games. Tucson has two more games against the undefeated Arizona Rattlers, and can’t afford to drop a game against a team with a losing record as the playoffs approach.

“If you don’t go in and play your game and take them lightly, they can beat you,” Coleman said. “We’re going into this game like we’re playing Arizona or Iowa. Everybody is the same.”

Sweet nothings

  • Sugar Skulls center Mike Montero left the game last week in San Diego with a leg injury. Montero was placed on the short-term injured reserve list and will be replaced by Alex Rios, a former Sahuarita High School offensive lineman. Trenton Saunders and Tucson High product Antonio Rosales will play tackle on Saturday.
  • After exiting the game following a sack in San Diego, starting quarterback Jake Medlock is active this week. Medlock is fifth in the IFL with 22 passing touchdowns.
  • Running back Mike Jones is averaging 60 yards per game, which leads the IFL. Jones has 480 of the team’s 1,040 total rushing yards this season.

Sports producer

Justin Spears is an award-winning sports journalist and Tucson native. He can be reached at jspears@tucson.com. On Twitter @justinesports.