The Tucson Sugar Skulls were unveiled today in front of the hometown audience for the first time to some up-close physical hits, loud music, pyrotechnics and footballs flying into the stands for keeps.
The Indoor Football League game also had what’s called a “rouge”, a point given to the team on a kickoff that tackles the returner before he is able to get out of the end zone. That happened on the very first play, giving the Bismarck Bucks a 1-0 lead. Yes, a 1-0 lead in football.
It was fitting with the festive and wild environment that the “swaggiest” quarterback — Matt Behrendt (of Wisconsin-Whitewater) led the Sugar Skulls from that one-point deficit to a 62-42 victory in front of 5,198 fans at the Tucson Arena.
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The “swaggiest” description comes from running back Shadrach Thornton (formerly of North Carolina State), who played confidently as well as a bruising type running back at 6-1 and 230 pounds. He rushed for 82 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown.
Behrendt equaled his Indoor Football League career-high with eight touchdown passes and had no interceptions. He also passed for 234 yards while completing 19 of 25 passes. He also rushed 10 times for 72 yards.
“When I say he’s the swaggiest guy in the huddle, he’s the swaggiest guy in the huddle — you need that in a quarterback,” said Thornton, who played today after sitting out last week’s opening win at San Diego because of a decision by coach Marcus Coleman and offensive coordinator Hurtis Chinn.
“When your quarterback comes with confidence and calls that play, you have every bit of trust that he’s going to make the right read.”
Thornton expanded on why Behrendt is the swaggiest quarterback by saying, “It’s the way he talks. It’s so smooth. He’s like, ‘Listen, don’t worry about it. We all good, alright? We’re going to go out here and make plays.’ And he calls the play and everybody is calm and relaxed. … He just comes in and controls everything. That’s what you want in a captain. That’s what you want in a leader.”
Behrendt smiled when told about Thornton’s comment.
“Swaggy? I do my thing out there,” said Behrendt, who twice led Wisconsin-Whitewater to the NCAA Division III title and got a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014.
“Everybody has their own little swag that they bring to the team. That’s what is unique about the team.”
The combination of Behrendt’s passing and playmaking ability off the run, combined with Thornton’s strong running style and a defense that practically shut down Bismarck in the first half propelled the Sugar Skulls to their 2-0 record heading into Saturday’s game at the Arizona Rattlers in Phoenix.
Behrendt split the quarterback duties last week with Jake Medlock at San Diego and played the entire game against Bismarck.
“We wanted to see guys in the whole game,” Coleman said. “Matt has been here the longest. We wanted to stick with him and see what he can give us throughout the whole game. He had some mistakes that happens in a game but for the most part, we thought he did well.”
Coleman said Behrendt is more mobile with “a little bit of wiggle” in his running than Medlock.
“Each one has their own skill set,” Coleman added. “We’ll use them when needed. Tonight, we went with Matt for that reason.”
Behrendt’s elusive style made tacklers miss but he did add that running 10 times might be tempting fate, especially in an arena league with less room to run free.
“I probably have to watch out for myself a little more,” Behrendt said. “I have to stay a little lower (when running). I know that. That’s just the competitor in me. That’s just how I play. I just want to get as many yards that I can, trying to get that first down.”
The offense certainly clicked with Behrendt leading the way and receivers Brandon Sampson, Shaquon Curenton and Donovan Rasberry each catching two touchdown passes. It looked like the IFL’s version of Washington State’s “Air Raid” offense under Mike Leach with Behrendt spreading the ball to five different receivers on a 25-man roster overall.
Sampson had seven catches for 85 yards, Rasberry had six catches for 51 yards and Curenton caught two passes for 54 yards.
The defense was effective in the first half as Tucson took a 35-7 lead at halftime. But to Coleman’s chagrin, the Sugar Skulls were not as resilient in the second half with Bismarck outscoring them 35-27.
“We came out firing on all cylinders but towards the end we kind of slacked off,” said linebacker Zach Allen, a former Wake Forest standout who led the Sugar Skulls with 12 tackles, including a sack. “I feel like that we slacked off as a defense. Going into next week, we have to tighten up in the second half and finish the game strong.”
Former LSU safety Micah Eugene Jr. was second on the team with seven tackles.
Cam Gaddis, a former Santa Rita High School and Pima Community College standout, had an interception that stopped a Bismarck drive deep in Tucson’s territory.
“There was a lot of energy going on. It got loud in here. It got tipped and I was like, “I’ve gotta grab it,'” said Gaddis about the pick.
Gaddis came close to one last week but his tip of a pass thrown into the end zone at San Diego was snared by former Hawaii standout Dee Maggitt Jr., who had two interceptions in that game but sat out against Bismarck.
“I had to get one this week,” Gaddis said. “I didn’t get one last week. I definitely gotta get one this week.”
Plenty of family and friends came to watch Gaddis and former CDO standout Robert Metz. Linemen Alex Rios of Sahuarita and Antonio Rosales of Tucson High also played in front of the home crowd.
Thornton started his press conference by thanking Rios, Rosales and center Mike Montero for opening up the running lanes.
“Without those guys, I wouldn’t be able to nothing tonight, so all shouts out to them because they’re the heroes,” Thornton said.
Rosales became somewhat of a cult hero with the Tucson fans when he got into a skirmish with a Bismarck player, losing his helmet in the process. He motioned for the fans to roar.
They roared, bringing the “Bone Yard,” as the Sugar Skulls call it, to life.