Fourth-quarter heroics lift Tucson Sugar Skulls over Duke City Gladiators to snap a five-game skid | National


If it weren’t for two penalty calls late in the fourth quarter of the Tucson Sugar Skulls’ 41-40 thrilling victory over the Duke City Gladiators on Saturday, who knows if the result would’ve been the same. 

After all, head coach Dixie Wooten was eyeing the game-tying PAT with eight seconds remaining, and rely on the comfort of playing an overtime period in Tucson Arena.

The Sugar Skulls players wanted to end the game right then and there. 

« When (Duke City) got those two flags, I still had extra point on my mind, but when I looked to the sideline, I saw my whole entire offense come to the wall and say, ‘Go for two!’ I had no choice but to go for two, » Wooten said. 

Added Wooten: « It shows that they believe. »

So, with the game — and perhaps the season — on the line, the Sugar Skulls’ field-goal unit was swapped with the starting offense, and quarterback Demry Croft took the snap and, with a key block from running back Mike Jones on the left hash mark, rushed in to convert the go-ahead two-point conversion. 

« I honestly don’t know who called it, but after the first penalty, we felt like, ‘Ah, we can actually go for two!’ I feel like it was everybody, » Croft said. 

More importantly, the gutsy call enabled the Sugar Skulls (2-6) to snap a five-game losing skid and pick up their second victory of the season. 

« These guys understand how it feels to finish, » Wooten said. « That’s why this game was tough, because we haven’t been able to finish all year. So, now we finished this game, and our hope is to finish more and more. » 

For the first time since the Sugar Skulls’ win against Duke City in May, Tucson held a two-possession lead against its opponent, when it led 12-0 in the first quarter following a pair of Jones touchdowns, but a pair of PATs were botched. Jones, the lone Sugar Skull who was a part of the inaugural 2019 season, finished Saturday night with 58-all purpose yards and five total touchdowns, including the one to set up the game-winning two-point conversion. 

« We had to get on his back. Our trainer said Mike was 100%, so I’m just going to let Mike Jones do what Mike Jones do, » Wooten said. 

After another red-zone stop, the Sugar Skulls responded with a third Jones touchdown to grab a 19-3 lead with 2:59 remaining in the first half, however the Gladiators clawed their way back with two Nate Davis passing touchdowns. The Duke City quarterback completed 23 of 41 passes for 232 yards and five touchdowns, with the bulk of his production coming in the final three quarters. Davis, a former Ball State star and 2007 MAC Offensive Player of the Year, had just 34 yards in the first quarter. 

Tucson led 19-16 going into the halftime break, but the Gladiators took their first lead of the game, 23-19, after a 15-yard passing touchdown. After stopping Tucson on fourth down, Gladiators kicker Daniel Bowen, who was released by Tucson three weeks ago, sunk a 39-yard field goal to take a 26-19 lead; Duke City scored 23 unanswered points. 

With just under four minutes left in the third quarter, Tucson wide receiver Jazeric Peterson returned a kickoff 30 yards to the Duke City 8-yard line. Croft, who went 9-for-16 passing for 55 yards, connected with Juju Augustine for a touchdown to tie the game at 26 with 1:53 left in the third quarter. 

To start the fourth quarter, Tucson stopped Duke City on fourth down to regain possession midfield. The Sugar Skulls scored a touchdown off what could’ve been a disastrous five-yard loss, but Jones evaded a few Duke City defenders for a three-yard score. 

« I just saw the end zone, » said Jones. « I just saw how much time we had and I just had to make a play. » 

Duke City tied it with a 14-yard touchdown from Davis to Xavier Amey, his second score of the game. The Gladiators then recovered an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, the same tactic the Arizona Rattlers used in the first half in last week’s contest, with the same result, too — a touchdown; Duke City took a 40-33 lead with 56 seconds left after Davis’ passing touchdown to Jared Elmore at the pylon. 

The Gladiators (3-5) attempted another onside kick, but the aware Sugar Skulls pounced on the ball at the 12-yard line to set up the offense deep into Duke City territory. A few plays later, Jones’ late-game heroics gave the Sugar Skulls a chance to win the game. 

Bowen had a chance to win the game with a field goal, but the kick was blocked by the Tucson Arena speaker system hanging over the field, ending the game. Bowen could’ve been the second ex-Sugar Skull to hand his former team a loss this season, joining Massachusetts Pirates kicker Josh Gable, but a stroke of luck went in favor of Tucson. 

« I’m glad it went into my favor, » Wooten said. « It’s crazy, but it would’ve came up a little short, because he kicked it high. But we’ll give the speaker the credit today. » 

Up next: Tucson will hit the road to face the Spokane Shock (5-2) on Saturday at 7 p.m. 

Extra points

  • Sugar Skulls wide receiver Ryan Balentine missed Saturday’s game with a knee injury. Balentine leads the team in receiving yards (422), which ranks fifth in the IFL. Balentine will return this upcoming week. 
  • Tucson added defensive lineman Seyvon Lowrey, a 6-foot-4-inch, 280-pound product who last played for the University of Central Florida’s 13-0 squad in 2017.