A "championship or bust" season for the Tucson Sugar Skulls has now reached uncomfortable territory for the Old Pueblo's Indoor Football League team.
Tucson (1-6) not only dropped its fifth straight game of the season in Saturday night's 54-38 loss to the Arizona Rattlers (5-1), the Sugar Skulls have now suffered six consecutive losses to their in-state rival since joining the IFL in 2019.
In typical Dixie Wooten fashion, Tucson's head coach shouldered the blame for Sugar Skulls loss.
"I gotta find a way (to win) as a coach," Wooten said. "At the end of the day, I gotta find a way to motivate them someway, somehow. So, I gotta go to the drawing boards, do what I gotta do and figure it out, because it all starts with me."
Rattlers receiver Jarod Harrington got Arizona on the board first, 6-0, in the early goings. Sugar Skulls kicker Jimmy Camacho, who signed with Tucson last week and kicked a league-high 54-yard field goal in last week's loss to Northern Arizona, sunk a 51-yarder with 8:04 left in the first quarter.
Similarly to the first matchup between Arizona and Tucson, a 44-34 thriller in Phoenix, the Sugar Skulls started the contest sluggish and fell behind 13-3 after the first quarter. Arizona posted 73 yards of total offense and six first downs in 14 plays, while the Sugar Skulls had one yard in four plays. The Rattlers dominated time of possession (10:55) in the first quarter compared to Tucson (4:05).
The Sugar Skulls gained momentum in the second quarter, when star wide receiver Ryan Balentine hauled in a 13-yard dart from quarterback Demry Croft, who completed 14 of 23 passes for 180 yards and scored five touchdowns. Balentine scored three touchdowns Saturday night — his second with 1:48 left in the second quarter to take a 17-13 lead, after Sugar Skulls defensive back Delvin Batiste snagged his first interception of the season. Balentine finished the night with seven receptions for 95 yards.
That would be the only time Tucson would hold a lead against its IFL counterpart.
Following Drew Powell's 24-yard touchdown pass to Harrington with 54 seconds remaining in the first half, the Rattlers recovered an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff and answered with a touchdown drive capped off by Nick LaSane's two-yard run. A potential halftime lead swiveled into a 27-17 deficit for Tucson.
To begin the second half, Croft threw an interception to Rattlers defensive back Dillon Winfrey, his third of the season and tied for an IFL best. Powell, who completed 16 of 21 passes for 173 yards and five touchdowns, found Troy Pelletier for a 7-yard pass, extending Arizona's lead to 34-17. Pelletier and Harrington combined for all five of Powell's touchdowns.
Croft's second-half miscues continued, when he fumbled the ball on the goal line late in the third quarter, which was recovered by the Rattlers. The Sugar Skulls have a turnover in the second half of every loss during the five-game losing streak.
"We're just shooting ourselves in the foot. ... We feel like we're getting it right, but we're not getting it right," Balentine said. "That's why we come to work every week and try to get it right. ... We're just not finishing. We have good drives, good possessions, we just can't replicate it every time."
At the halfway point in the season, "the basics are over with" for Tucson as it hopes to end its losing skid.
"The basics are over with," Wooten said. "It's time to watch film and take constructive criticism the hard way. We gotta face reality on some things. Back to the basics is cool, but it's time face reality and say, 'OK, as a player, I'm not doing my job, I need to do my job. The basics is done, it's time for accountability from here on out."
Up next: Tucson will face the Duke City Gladiators, the Sugar Skulls' only win this season, on Saturday at 6:05 p.m. at Tucson Arena.
- On the night before the Fourth of July, Saturday's contest at Tucson Arena was military appreciation night.
- Announced attendance at Tucson Arena Saturday night was 3,434.
- Tucson debuted its all-red uniforms for the first time on Saturday, adding to its black, yellow and white uniform sets.