It was not the result the Tucson Sugar Skulls hoped for in the franchise’s first in-state rivalry game against the Arizona Rattlers, but the 63-28 loss in Phoenix on Saturday was a learning experience.
The Sugar Skulls were handed their first loss as an Indoor Football League team, and now enter the bye week with a 2-1 record. The Star dives into the most notable takeaways from Tucson’s latest game:
Tucson quarterback Matt Behrendt won IFL Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 234 yards and a league-high eight touchdowns in the home opener against Bismarck. Behrendt also was productive on the ground and through the air against San Diego in the season opener.
As expected, he again got the nod to start under center Saturday.
Behrendt entered the weekend fourth in the IFL with 150.5 passing yards per game, but he was tamed by the Rattlers. Behrendt scored his first touchdown of the game on a 16-yard run three minutes before halftime and finished the first half completing 6 of 14 passes for 37 yards, 40 on the ground.
Arizona “didn’t do anything that we thought they weren’t going to do. We knew what we were going to get into with the game plan and the coaches do a great job in preparing us,” Behrendt said. “It just came down to execution, and we hurt ourselves with penalties and the field position wasn’t the best. But we didn’t execute the way we wanted to.”
As in the season opener, Sugar Skulls coach Marcus Coleman and offensive coordinator Hurtis Chinn swapped Behrendt for Jake Medlock at halftime.
Medlock battled back spasms and didn’t play in the second half last week against Bismarck. Medlock led the IFL in passing yards, completions and touchdowns with Quad City last season.
“That’s how it’s always been. We’ve been rotating,” Medlock said.
Coleman simply wanted the offense to get a “spark” after trailing 35-14 at halftime.
“We wanted to get a new guy in there that has a different skill set, particularly against what they run and try to find a spark. We wanted to get the offense rolling and get some positive plays,” Coleman said.
Medlock didn’t find his groove until just under five minutes left when he threw his first touchdown pass of the season to wide receiver Jarid Brown. Medlock finished 6 of 12 for 56 yards and a touchdown.
Penalties disrupted field position
The first half wasn’t too kind to the Sugar Skulls in terms of penalties — especially on kickoffs, which all occurred in the second quarter.
“Every penalty we got, we had to start in the back of the end zone, and we had to push it out. We had the clock against us so we couldn’t run the ball so it was all self-inflicted wounds,” said Sugar Skulls running back Mike Jones.
The first one: holding, which put the Sugar Skulls on their 8-yard line. The second: another holding penalty on Tucson’s Brandon Sampson, which put the Sugar Skulls, then trailing 28-14, back to their 7-yard line.
Once the Rattlers went ahead 35-14 with just under a minute remaining in the first half, the Sugar Skulls were flagged for an illegal block in the back on the following kickoff. The drive began at the 1-yard line.
“The field position wasn’t the best, and it’s tough especially in this league with such a small field,” Behrendt said. “A penalty will back you up half the field so it’s tough when you shoot yourself in the foot like that.”
Both teams had seven penalties, but the Rattlers were flagged for more yards (84) than Tucson (37). But only one of Arizona’s penalties came on a kickoff.
Initially, the pace of the game teased a potential slugfest. At the end of the first quarter, the game was tied at 7. Then penalties impacted field position and the Rattlers found a spark defensively and took control.
With a chance to take a 10-7 lead, a 51-yard field goal attempt by Sugar Skulls kicker Diego Marquez was blocked by Rattlers defensive lineman Nikolaus D’Avanzo, and the ball was scooped up in the back of the end zone by Arizona cornerback Dillion Winfrey to make it 14-7.
On the following Sugar Skulls drive, which began at the 8-yard line, Behrendt ran the option and decided to keep it for himself until Rattlers defensive lineman Lance McDowdell clobbered the quarterback and forced a fumble, which was recovered by Arizona.
Two plays later, Rattlers quarterback Verlon Reed Jr. rushed for a 3-yard score to extend the lead to 21-7.
“That was the moment when we couldn’t get it back, and it just started snowballing after that,” Coleman said. “Even though we had plays on both sides of the ball, we just couldn’t get it back.”
Tucson cut the lead to 21-14, but the Rattlers then scored three straight touchdowns and eventually led by as many as 42 points.
Arizona is averaging 65 points through three games; Tucson is at 52.
Largest crowd for Sugar Skulls
The Sugar Skulls played in front of by far the largest crowd of the season. The announced attendance at Talking Stick Resort Arena for Saturday’s game was 16,110.
“I like that kind of crowd. I can get used to that,” Jones said.
Number of tackles Sugar Skulls linebacker Zach Allen is averaging per game, which leads the IFL. Overall, Allen has 32 tackles, and 21 of them are solo, which is also an IFL best.
The Sugar Skulls (2-1) are tied for fourth place in the IFL along with Quad City. The United Bowl Champion Iowa is in third place at 2-0 while the Rattlers and Sioux Falls Storm remain at the top with a 3-0 record.
“Back to work. Time to get back to the drawing board and work on what we need to fix, and there’s probably going to be some changes with our personnel. There’s going to be some new faces; that’s just the nature of the business.
“Unfortunately I’m going to be the one making those tough decisions, but that’s why I’m the head coach. There will be some personnel changes, and we’ll put guys in the right spot and we’ll get right.” — Coleman on potentially changing up the offensive and defensive starting lineups heading into the bye week