The Tucson Sugar Skulls need to be at their best — and maybe a little bit better than that — as they head into the final, most brutal stretch of their inaugural season in the Indoor Football League.
The Sugar Skulls have won three straight games and, were the season to end today, would qualify for the IFL playoffs. Starting Saturday night, however, their season will get significantly more difficult. Tucson (6-5) will host their in-state rival Arizona Rattlers (10-0), coached by Sugar Skulls owner Kevin Guy.
The teams will play again in two weeks. To finish with a winning regular-season record, Tucson — which has three games remaining — need to beat the Rattlers at least once.
Tucson coach Marcus Coleman said this week that the team has had three constants: Quick scoring, steady offensive and defensive line play and growth from individual players. Take running back Mike Jones, who leads in the IFL with 59.9 rushing yards per game. Over the last two weeks, Jones has recorded at least one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown per game.
“Mike’s played great all year. He was banged up and missed one or two games, but when he came back, he was Mike Jones again. He is one of the constants and he’s been the most consistent player on our squad every single week,” said Coleman.
Tucson ranks third in the IFL in rushing yards (1,134) and rushing defense (70.9 yards allowed per game), so the linemen up front are producing. Scoring hasn’t been a problem: the Sugar Skulls were either tied with or led their opponents in the second half of four losses this season, including the last Tucson-Rattlers contest at Tucson Arena in April. But the Skulls coughed up a 17-point second-half lead against the defending champion Iowa Barnstormers early this season, and twice squandered hot starts against the Rattlers.
“It’s not a matter of us not playing with anybody,” Coleman said. “We just have to be consistent and finish off these ballgames.”
Finishing has been an issue for most of the season. Fortunately for Tucson, things may be trending in the right direction. The Sugar Skulls scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and recovered an onside kick to beat Bismarck 52-40 on the road last weekend.
“There were a lot of things going on in the game, but the guys rallied together and we showed mental toughness and closed out the game, which is something we haven’t been able to do this season,” Coleman said. “From a coaching perspective, sitting on the outside looking in and seeing everything come together, it was really encouraging.”
The Sugar Skulls’ secondary play is also improving following a winless April. While Tucson still ranks last in the IFL with 171.9 passing yards allowed per game, it’s allowed an average of just 139 yards per game during its three-game winning streak.
“When those guys cover, we get sacks. It’s that simple,” Sugar Skulls defensive lineman Keith Jones Jr. said. “When those guys are doing their job in the back, we’re getting the stats and it goes the other way around.”
Tucson’s three straight wins have come against Bismarck (once) and San Diego (twice), and neither team is likely to see the playoffs this season.
Saturday’s opponent, the Rattlers, boast both the top-rated offense and top-rated passing defense in the IFL.
Running back Jabre Lolley and wide receiver Jamal Miles have combined for 36 touchdowns this season. The Rattlers added quarterback Drew Powell, last year’s IFL MVP, in late-April; he has started over Jeff Ziemba since May 4. Powell completed 7 of 12 passes for 152 yards and four touchdowns last week against San Diego. He also rushed for 104 yards and five touchdowns. Powell will be the third different Rattlers quarterback to face the Sugar Skulls this season.
Tucson knows what to expect Saturday, regardless of who’s under center for the Rattlers.
“They always come out and play hard and fast,” Jones said. “I’m always in their gameplan somehow, someway. I know Coach Guy is going to find a way to isolate me. I love their energy and how they play because it ups my game every time.”
A Tucson win would move the Sugar Skulls into sole possession of fourth place in the standings. If Tucson loses, it could fall to sixth place.
The Sugar Skulls have a bye next week. Then they’ll travel to Phoenix to face the Rattlers before hosting Quad City in the final regular-season game of the season. The Steamwheelers currently own the tiebreaker with Tucson.
Tucson can make things simple by simply winning. Go 3-0, and the team will host a playoff game.
“We have some tougher games ahead of us if we want to control that fourth spot. We just have to finish,” Coleman said.
- The Sugar Skulls will wear black and yellow camouflage jerseys on Saturday for Memorial Day Weekend. The first 2,000 fans in attendance will receive a black rally towel. The game is also military and first responders appreciation night.
- Tucson quarterback Jake Medlock is active this week after exiting last week’s game following a crushing hit.
- Saturday will mark the Sugar Skulls’ sixth home game of the inaugural season. Tucson is averaging 4,038 fans per home game.