Tucson Sugar Skulls

Sugar Skulls beat Duke City in a thriller, keep playoff hopes alive

The Tucson Sugar Skulls beat the Duke City Gladiators for the third time this season on Saturday night (IFL/Sugar Skulls photo)

On Saturday night, the Tucson Sugar Skulls came from behind and defeated the Duke City Gladiators 63-59, keeping their playoff hopes alive.

If Tucson beats Northern Arizona in its final game of the regular season and Bismarck beats Duke City next week, the Sugar Skulls will make a postseason appearance for the second time in the franchises’ first two seasons in the IFL.

With both the game and a potential playoff berth on the line, Sugar Skulls quarterback Cory Murphy drove the team down the field before scoring on a game-winning 1-yard rushing touchdown with six seconds left in regulation.

Tucson head coach Dixie Wooten was ecstatic after the game.

“It’s an amazing feeling, man,” Wooten said. “When you fight this hard, and you come down from 21-3, you got your playoffs on the line, it’s easy to say, ‘you know what, we tried,’ but those guys came out and fought to the end and then Elam made the best play of the year by blitzing on the goal line and stripping the quarterback. So, I feel like these guys have come together, and I’m telling you, if we get in, we’re gonna be a dangerous team.”

Duke City was up 45-34 with under ten minutes left in the game and had the ball near Tucson’s goal line, when Matt Elam, a former All-American at Florida and first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens, sacked quarterback Nate Davis, stripping and recovering the football in the process. On the following possession, Murphy found Ryan Balentine on a 7-yard touchdown pass. The teams then traded touchdowns when the ensuing onside kick was recovered and ran back for a touchdown by Duke City’s Ray Jones Jr., and Murphy found Juju Augustine on a 13-yard touchdown pass on the following possession. Raymond Taylor would extend Duke City’s lead to 59-49 on a 9-yard rushing touchdown in what would be the Gladiators’ last score of the ballgame. 

With just over two minutes left in regulation, Murphy found a wide-open Balentine for a 40-yard touchdown reception that narrowed the Duke City lead to three points. The Sugar Skulls recovered an onside kick on the following possession that lead to Murphy’s game-winning touchdown.

Murphy completed 17of 23 passing attempts for 195 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception.

Balentine was Murphy’s top target, with nine catches for 130 yards and three touchdowns.

Mike Jones rushed for 39 yards on nine carries and had two touchdowns.

Malik Boynton led the team with seven tackles.

Wooten tells the team a life story after every game, and the one he told his players on Saturday night sums up the trials and tribulations they have faced and overcame this season.

“Today, I told them that no matter what you go through, you wake up in the morning, and you still have a chance to right every wrong you did in your life,” he said. “You have to dedicate your life to make sure that you’re doing great by whoever you are around, so when you wake up, never look at it like you just woke up for no reason. When you wake up out of that bed in the morning, go fight and have fun and make sure that everyone around you appreciates you.”

When the team wakes up on Sunday morning, they will have a legitimate shot at making the postseason.

The Sugar Skulls (5-8) play next Saturday against the Northern Arizona Wranglers (1-11) in Prescott Valley. Kickoff is at 6:05 p.m.

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writing intern Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood.  He is currently attending Pima Community College where he writes for the Aztec Press. Next semester he will be attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he will work towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.

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