Disappointment, optimism and determination were just a few words to describe the Tucson Sugar Skulls’ mood following the 50-49 overtime loss against the unbeaten Arizona Rattlers on Saturday night in Phoenix.
Yes, getting swept over four games this season by their in-state rival and losing in a heartbreaker are the disappointing parts, but the Rattlers haven’t lost a game since the 2018 Indoor Football League playoffs. Arizona (13-0) is one win away for completing its first undefeated regular season in franchise history, which dates back to 1992.
A first-year team taking the IFL juggernaut all the way down to the last play of the game showed the Tucson coaching staff what the Sugar Skulls are capable of against a worthy opponent.
“Obviously you have things to correct, but there’s not much bad that I can say about what our ball club did,” said Tucson coach Marcus Coleman. “The guys went out and played hard, they accepted the challenge and I thought they played with a lot of heart and believed in each other.
“We just came up short.”
Now the Sugar Skulls (6-7) hope to brush off the loss and use the glass-half-full mentality in the most crucial game of the season. Tucson closes the regular season with a must-win home game against Quad City (6-7) on Saturday night.
The last time the Sugar Skulls faced Quad City on the road in April, the Steamwheelers won 72-54.
Here’s more on where the Sugar Skulls stand heading into the final week of the regular season:
Making one more play
Tucson led by as many as 21 points in the first half against the Rattlers, and for a brief moment it appeared the Sugar Skulls were on their way to a stunning blowout win.
Sugar Skulls quarterback Jake Medlock scored the first two touchdowns, then found speedster Jeremiah Harris for a 40-yard touchdown to snap a 14-14 tie. On the following possession, Tucson stopped the Rattlers on third down near midfield, forcing Arizona to try a field goal, which missed.
The Sugar Skulls added to their lead by scoring on a fake field goal attempt on the goal line when holder and backup quarterback Matt Behrendt kept the ball, rolled to his right and tossed it to running back Shad Thornton.
Dee Maggitt Jr. intercepted Rattlers quarterback Drew Powell on the ensuing possession and Medlock capitalized with a touchdown pass to Rico Brown. Tucson was up 35-14 and 48 seconds away from having a three-touchdown lead at halftime.
But Arizona kick returner Jarrod Harrington returned a kickoff for a touchdown just before halftime and the Rattlers opened up the second half with back-to-back touchdowns to tie the game at 35.
With the game tied at 42, Medlock drove down the field in the final three minutes and put the Sugar Skulls at the Rattlers’ 2-yard line before exiting with a toe injury. Medlock finished the game 17 of 25 for 190 yards and scored five touchdowns.
“I don’t know what the prognosis is, but he’s walking so he’ll be fine,” said Coleman.
Behrendt relieved Medlock with 2:46 remaining. After a false-start penalty that backed up Tucson’s offense to the 9-yard line, the Sugar Skulls were unable to punch it in and gave the Rattlers a golden opportunity to score, but Arizona couldn’t convert on fourth-and-1 at the Tucson 14-yard line with nine seconds left. With the game on the line, Sugar Skulls kicker Josh Gable missed a 50-yard field goal attempt.
Each team started its drive on the opponents’ 20-yard line. Sugar Skulls running back Mike Jones scored on a 4-yard run and following the PAT, Tucson held a 49-42 lead. One stop would’ve won the game, but the Rattlers scored and Powell converted the two-point conversion after scrambling to his right and diving for the pylon.
“They played with heart and I hope they understand that they can play like this every weekend,” said Coleman.
“They just made one more play than we did. For the most part, I thought we played a hell of game all the way across the board. … I wanted to see our team play a complete ball game. I wanted to see our guys play four quarters — tonight we had five — and we did that.”
Just like the old days
Sugar Skulls defensive lineman Keith Jones Jr. wore a grin after the game, because like Coleman, he recognized Tucson went punch-for-punch with a team that holds the best record in the IFL.
It reminded the 2018 All-IFL defensive tackle of when he was a member of the Iowa Barnstormers and they beat the Rattlers 69-68 in overtime last May at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
Powell was Iowa’s quarterback at the time.
“Last year when we played here with Iowa, we had the same situation, a toe-to-toe game that went into overtime and we won at the same spot on that side,” said Jones.
And just like any football player working toward competing at the highest level, Jones relished the opportunity to play in a tight battle in front of 13,755 fans.
“The crowd was hype, the team was motivated and they felt the energy from the crowd. It was fun playing tonight,” he said.
If the Sugar Skulls earn a No. 5 seed in playoffs, there’s a possibility they could play the Rattlers for a chance to play in the IFL title game. If Tucson gets the sixth seed and upsets the 3 and 2 seeds, it could play the Rattlers in the United Bowl.
Playoffs begin early for Tucson
With the loss to Arizona, the Sugar Skulls have one simple task this week: Beat the Steamwheelers and they’re in playoffs. Lose, and they’re ending the inaugural season on sour note with a losing record.
“We’re definitely in must-win mode this weekend if we want to go to the playoffs,” said Coleman.
Since the Steamwheelers routed the Sugar Skulls in Quad City, they own the tiebreaker, but both have the same record. So whoever wins automatically punches their ticket to playoffs. Quad City can still make the playoffs if it loses, just as long as Nebraska also loses to Iowa on Saturday.
A win this week for the Sugar Skulls would result in playing the Green Bay Blizzard on the road in the first round of the playoffs.