The Tucson Sugar Skulls made history Saturday.
In their first season as an expansion franchise, the Sugar Skulls punched their ticket to the Indoor Football League playoffs after they took down the Quad City Steamwheelers 55-50 at Tucson Arena in a winner-take-all matchup.
Tucson is the first expansion team to clinch an IFL playoff spot.
"It feels good. ... If anything I'm more proud of the players and everyone else in that room that have been working their butts off all year, and we got the first rewards of hopefully many," said Sugar Skulls head coach Marcus Coleman.
Tucson quarterback Jake Medlock was active and participated in pregame warmups after being listed as “day-to-day” following a toe injury in an overtime loss to the Arizona Rattlers last week. But Matt Behrendt replaced Medlock under center to open the game, Behrendt's first start since an April 6 road loss to Nebraska.
Behrendt caught fire on the first two drives Saturday to set the tone early for Tucson.
He completed 3 of 4 passes for 52 yards and scored two touchdowns, including a 34-yard dart to wide receiver Rico Brown just before the end of the first quarter. Brown extended his streak of touchdown catches to six games, dating back to April. He's caught 12 touchdowns during the streak.
"He's a playmaker. Coach has play calls just for him and he's awesome. He's always been one of those guys you can rely on," said Behrendt. "He's always in the right spot."
The Sugar Skulls took a 20-7 lead when defensive back Dee Maggitt Jr. intercepted Quad City quarterback E.J. Hilliard, who hadn’t thrown an interception in eight straight games before Saturday.
Maggitt’s interception set up Tucson’s offense at the Steamwheelers’ 7-yard line, and running back Mike Jones punched it in for a touchdown. Jones finished the game with a season-high 116 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
With Nebraska (7-7) upsetting the Iowa Barnstormers (12-2) earlier Saturday night and owning the tiebreaker over Quad City, the Steamwheelers had to beat Tucson for a spot in the IFL playoffs. Quad City wasn’t going down without a fight.
Trailing 27-14, Steamwheelers quarterback E.J. Hilliard found wide receivers Zach Minch and Quinton Pedroza for touchdowns on back-to-back possessions for a 28-27 lead at halftime.
Just like in the first quarter, Behrendt set the tone early in the second half with another touchdown pass to Brown, and scored on a three-yard run to take a 41-28 lead following Tucson defensive back Edward Burns’ interception. Hilliard’s two interceptions were the most he’s thrown in a game for Quad City this season.
The game paused late in the third quarter for multiple injuries on both sides. Sugar Skulls defensive tackle Keith Jones Jr. left the game with a leg injury after he stripped Hilliard at the goal line and was tackled midfield. Medics helped Quad City defensive lineman Kewan Alfred off the field on a stretcher after a collision with his own teammate. Then Sugar Skulls linebacker Zach Allen left the game on the next possession.
The Sugar Skulls finished the game without both Jones and Allen, two 2018 All-IFL defenders.
Tucson avoided Quad City's fourth-quarter push to escape with a 55-50 victory and earned a chance to compete for an IFL championship, known as the United Bowl.
"The last couple weeks we've been slowly pushing through that mental hurdle and that mental wall to try and get to this point and tonight we showed it. Regardless of how close it was, we finished the game and that's all that matters," said Coleman.
Sixth-seeded Tucson will face No. 3 Sioux Falls at 1 p.m. June 23 in the first round of the playoffs.
"We just wanted to get into the dance and now that we got into the dance, it's all even now," said Coleman.
"We accomplished the first goal by getting to the dance, now everyone is 0-0 and the season starts over for us and the remaining days. We'll see who's at the end."
Here's a look at the IFL playoff bracket:
No. 6 Tucson Sugar Skulls vs. No. 3 Sioux Falls Storm
Winner plays at No. 2 Iowa Barnstormers
No. 5 Nebraska Danger vs. No. 4 Green Bay Blizzard
Winner plays at No. 1 Arizona Rattlers