Their record shows 5-5, but the Tucson Sugar Skulls could very well be 8-2 — or even 9-1 — heading into this weekend’s bye.
Tucson squandered fourth-quarter losses three times in the opening months of the season. And quarterback Daquan Neal missed a winnable game because he was trying out for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.
The Skulls blew a 17-point lead to IFL bottom dwellers in the San Diego Strike Force and lost 67-66 in April, then followed that up with a 57-52 loss to the Duke City Gladiators in the week. next. The most recent setback for the Sugar Skulls was a 34-32 loss to state rival the Northern Arizona Wranglers last weekend at home. Neal threw for a season-high 124 yards and a touchdown on 8 for 15 passes; he also fumbled inside the red zone on fourth down late in the fourth quarter, which led to the Wranglers’ game-winning field goal.
“We just aren’t done,” Sugar Skulls running back Mike Jones, who leads the IFL with 22 rushing touchdowns, said after the game. “That’s all I can say.”
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Tucson coach and general manager Dixie Wooten decided to go for the fourth conversion rather than throw a field goal to make it a four-point game due to the Skulls’ kicking issues. The team was a combined 2 for 6 on PATs and field goals.
“Two bad snaps and an extra point blocked. Our long snapper had problems all game even with snaps on offense so I didn’t want to take that opportunity to block him and they get him back and throw him back,” Wooten said. “We wanted to go for the touchdown, and if we didn’t score the touchdown, our defense played the fires and we could have stopped them from scoring a long field goal. … You go past the wins, but you never got past the losses. It was tough, but at the end of the day, I have the best quarterback in the league. By far, we’re the best offense in the league with him in there.
Wooten said he had a “bottle half full” attitude through the first 10 games. The good news: Tucson’s defense gave up a season-low 34 points to the Wranglers and had two interceptions in the first half, which doubled its season total; Tucson still ranks last in the league with four picks.
“You see it two ways,” Wooten said. “You can see it in the hardest way: we had control of this game the whole time, and we let it slip out of our hands at the end. But then you also have to see it like this: our defense played flat out, and we know our offense will never have another night like this again. With our defense beefed up the way it has, it made me even more excited to get out of this week. off.
Wooten added: “From day one until now we have improved a lot. The record is 5-5, but we know our offense won’t score 30 points every game. Our defense has given other teams looks and we know we can stop teams from scoring 30 points in a game, so at the end of the day, we’re a tough team to beat. If you ask any team in the league who they don’t want to see in the playoffs, I guarantee they’ll tell us. … Our identity is that we are a strong attack with our defense improving. We’re still playing a physical game, but now we’re starting to get in touch with who we are.
The Sugar Skulls return to Tucson for back-to-back home games Saturday against the Bay Area Panthers and Vegas Knight Hawks.
Wooten ‘overreacted’, Winslow stays with Skulls
Sugar Skulls defensive lineman Tony Winslow Jr. was flagged for roughing up the passer during Northern Arizona’s last practice, pushing the Wranglers into Sugar Skulls territory.
Winslow was fired from the team minutes after the game.
“It’s not acceptable so we’re not going to allow any player to do that,” Wooten said after the game. “So at the end of the day you won’t see him in our team anymore.”
However, Wooten has since reassessed Winslow’s penalty and decided to keep him on the team.
“He made a stupid play, but I overreacted because I was in an emotional state,” Wooten said. “I overreacted, and that’s a bad thing as a coach. He tried to make a play and hit (the quarterback) late. He knows he can’t do it again. Tony is still on the team, I overreacted, but he’s back.
“He is supposed to understand the moment. That’s what upset me the most. If he doesn’t hit it late, now that long field goal is a 40-yard field goal. During warm-ups or even during the game, the kicker has never pushed so far. We wanted that on that possession, but (Winslow) ended up hitting (the quarterback) and it ended up being a 25-yard field goal.
Winslow has made an impact this season as the Sugar Skulls’ top field goal blocker. In Tucson’s 42-41 win over Duke City, Winslow blocked the Gladiators’ PAT, which was picked up by defensive back Jovon White and came back for two runs to win the game.
Goodbye weekly plans
Wooten returned home to Houston during the bye week. He planned to spend time with his grandchildren, go fishing and crabbing, and take his dogs to his local park.
“When I come home it’s a place where I can just be a normal person,” he said. “I’m just going to have fun with my family and make sure I go fishing a lot. … I’ve been crabbing since I was a little kid. Our great-grandfather used to take us crabbing, and now I’m taking my grandkids crabbing, and I hope they do the same with their grandkids.
Wooten hopes his players will get the chance to hit the reset button before the final stretch of the season.
“There’s nothing like family,” Wooten said. “When our guys come back, they have an energy like, ‘I went and saw who I’m doing it for. Now I’m ready to go. I have to show who I’m playing for – while I’m here – that I’m playing for. ‘trying to take it to the next level.'”
Contact sports producer Justin Spears at 573-4312 or [email protected] On Twitter: