Arizona Daily Star
The Tucson Sugar Skulls take on the Northern Arizona Wranglers in the IFL playoff opener on Saturday and, well, something has got to give.
Tucson is 3-3 against its in-state rival heading into the 6 p.m. game at Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott Valley. The teams played three times during the 2022 regular season, with the Wranglers winning two of three and edging the Skulls by an aggregate score of 132-125.
Northern Arizona is the No. 2 seed in the IFL Western Conference, one spot ahead of Tucson. The Wranglers are coming off a 39-32 loss to the Duke City Gladiators, the same team that edged Tucson by four total points in two games this season. Tucson, meanwhile, picked up a nine-point victory over the Bay Area Panthers.
Only one team can advance to the second round of the playoffs. If history is any indication, Saturday’s game will be tough. Here’s a look at the three games played between Tucson and Northern Arizona this season, what went down and who stood out:
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Score: Sugar Skulls 72, Wranglers 62
What happened : The Sugar Skulls set a franchise record for runs scored and combined runs scored in a game on their way to a 10-point win over their state rivals at Tucson Arena. The win over the Wranglers, who averaged 7.6 yards per game in a losing effort, helped Tucson snap to a three-game losing streak. The Sugar Skulls never trailed in the game, although the Wranglers stayed within striking distance throughout the match. Sugar Skulls quarterback Daquan Neal threw for 156 yards and four touchdowns and ran for a team-high 49 yards and three scores. However, the Skulls defense had no answer for Northern Arizona wide receiver Quentin Randolph, who caught seven passes, including five for touchdowns.
Stats that matter: Tucson only attempted three passes in the second half; all three went for touchdowns.
He said it : “You could just say the guys on the sidelines were just ready to carry on no matter what. Other games we felt like we had won and we eased off. This week these guys kept fighting and understanding that if we keep score we will win the game. … We were making defensive plays, but we also gave up too many plays. We have to fix this problem. As a coach, this is the first time I’ve given up 60 points twice in one season. So it’s not a great feeling, but a win is a win. Now we are moving up the food chain and now we need to improve defensively. — Dixie Wooten, Sugar Skulls Coach
Score: Wranglers 36, Sugar Skulls 21
What happened : Playing without Neal, who was in Indianapolis to try out the Colts for the NFL, the Sugar Skulls lacked the offensive punch that had been a hallmark of their start to the season. Backup quarterback Gabriel Cunningham completed 10 of 20 passes for 94 yards and was intercepted once and sacked four times, and visiting Tucson dropped 15 points at Findlay Toyota Center. Tucson trailed 22- in the third quarter when their offense awoke. A pair of rushing touchdowns from Mike Jones cut Northern Arizona’s lead to eight points heading into the fourth. Tucson attempted an onside kick that failed, and two plays later Wranglers quarterback Kaleb Barker hit a 3-yard touchdown to extend the Wranglers lead. Barker threw for 89 yards and three touchdowns and added a team-high 55 rushing yards and scoring for Northern Arizona, which improved to 6-2.
Stats that matter: Tucson averaged just 2.5 yards per play, a tiny number in the offense-heavy IFL. The game marked the first time all season that Tucson had failed to score more than 30 points in a game, and their first game of the season without a passing touchdown.
He said it : “The quarterback is the most important player in the building, but everyone practiced, so at the end of the day we lost. I told these guys that we had to settle a lot of things before that game against San Diego. The guys came in and were upbeat, focused, and they had everything ready to go. —Wooten
Score: Wranglers 34, Sugar Skulls 32
What happened : Brandon Fischer’s 24-yard field goal with 3 seconds left capped a stunning comeback, and the Wranglers used a 13-point fourth quarter to outlast the Sugar Skulls – and Neal, who returned to the club after failing to make the Colts. Northern Arizona scored the game’s final 13 points, helped in part by a pair of errors from Tucson. Neal’s touchdown pass to Carrington Thompson in the third quarter gave the Skulls a 32-21 lead. The Tucson quarterback had a chance to extend the advantage early in the fourth quarter, but Neal fumbled in the red zone. Northern Arizona recovered, drove and threw a field goal.
The Wranglers trailed by one point on their last possession when Tucson defensive lineman Tony Winslow Jr. was flagged for roughing up the passer, setting up Fischer’s game-winner.
“We cannot allow this type of situation to happen,” Wooten said. “It’s nonsense. We are playing a great game of football and for us to end it with a penalty like that is unreal.
Stats that matter: Neal struggled, completing 8 of 15 passes for a record 124 yards. Jones led Tucson with three rushing touchdowns — all in the first half.
He said it : “We just haven’t finished. That’s all I can say.” —Jones