On Star Wars Day and the evening before Cinco de Mayo which included honoring teachers across Southern Arizona, the Tucson Sugar Skulls certainly had lots to celebrate.
The Sugar Skulls (4-5) snapped their four-game losing streak in a 54-34 win over the revamped San Diego Strike Force (1-8) at Tucson Arena on Saturday.
Piecing together a complete game had been the Sugar Skulls’ crutch during the skid. In all four losses, Tucson either led or was tied with its opponents in the fourth quarter. Last week against the Iowa Barnstormers, the Sugar Skulls coughed up a 17-point lead and allowed Iowa to score 34 fourth-quarter points in a 61-58 loss.
Sugar Skulls coach Marcus Coleman even changed the team’s mentality to play 65 minutes instead of a complete 60 to avoid another second-half meltdown.
“It was close. It was about 59 (minutes) and some change,” said Coleman. “For the most part, we played a complete game. The guys gutted it out and we grinded our way through it.”
Sugar Skulls received a spark from “firecracker” Jeremiah Harris who was added to the roster earlier this week after he was released by the Orlando Predators of the National Arena League. After sending his highlight film to offensive coordinator Hurtis Chinn, he was in Tucson by the start of the game week.
He made the most out of his Indoor Football League debut and returned three kickoffs for 105 yards.
“I’m just doing my part. When I do my part, they celebrate and that’s how you gain respect from your teammates and make them feel like you’re not a waste of time,” said Harris.
Tucson quarterback Jake Medlock had his doubts about the 5-foot-7, 150-pound Harris when he first arrived to practice. Then Medlock did his research and discovered Harris is also from Florida and played preps ball at Class 8A state powerhouse Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando.
“I’m not going to lie, when he first got here I said, ‘Oh here we go, another short guy.’ He grabbed one in practice and took off and I said, ‘Oh, this is different,’” said Medlock. “Us Florida boys stay together. … He told me he was from Orlando Dr. Phillips.
I told him straight from the heart, I apologize. Just seeing him run is amazing, he’s so fast.”
Medlock completed 14 of 20 passes for 90 yards, four touchdowns and one interception along with two rushing scores. His top two targets were wide receivers Rico Brown and Shaq Curenton and the duo combined for four touchdowns. Since the Arizona Rattlers game, Brown and Curenton have recorded 15 touchdowns, becoming two of Medlock’s top playmakers as the Sugar Skulls currently have the top-rated offense in the IFL.
“We work together all the time. I’m a big believer in making a connection on and off the field because if it’s off the field, then it’ll work on the field as well. They’re two great guys and it’s helping our offense,” said Medlock.
Medlock was replaced by Matt Behrendt in the third quarter after he tweaked his ankle, but Medlock is expected to play next week. Behrendt led the team in rushing with 23 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The offense flowed as it has been for the most part all season. The defense played a key role in Tucson’s losing streak particularly in pass coverage. Against Iowa and the Quad City Steamwheelers, the Sugar Skulls defense allowed 644 yards of total offense combined, including 512 passing yards. On Saturday night, San Diego had 163 yards of total offense with only 96 through the air.
“We covered well, we tackled well and there weren’t any blown assignments so I thought we had a decent night,” said Coleman.
Even better news for the Sugar Skulls, the Quad City Steamwheelers fell to the Sioux Falls Storm, which puts Tucson in sixth place in the IFL standings and in the final playoff spot if postseason began this week. Tucson has five games remaining on its inaugural schedule including a quick turnaround with a road game in San Diego on Thursday followed by another away game in Bismarck, North Dakota.
With playoffs approaching, the Sugar Skulls have engaged postseason mode with a “new season.”
“The mindset is this is a new season. This was game one of season one. Next week is game two of season one,” said Coleman.
“We have an opportunity to win some games here on the road going towards the end of the season as we continue to keep ourselves in the playoff hunt. As long as we keep coming out and taking care of business like we did tonight, we should be OK.”