The Tucson Sugar Skulls came up short against the Iowa Barnstormers, losing 61-48 Saturday night at Tucson Arena.
Tucson already secured a playoff spot with a win last week at San Diego, but a win against Iowa or a Duke City loss on Saturday would have secured a three seed in the Western Conference Playoffs.
Neither of those things happened.
“They were just tougher than us. They came in, hit us in the mouth, and we didn’t answer the bell,” Tucson head coach Dixie Wooten said. “It was the worst game I’ve ever been a part of in my entire life. When you let somebody come in and hit you in your mouth over and over and over, and you don’t stand up and fight, that’s not a team of mine, and that’s something that we’re gonna fix.
“We can’t go into the playoffs like that.”
After Iowa scored on the first possession of the second half on a 2-yard rushing touchdown from running back Antonio Wimbush to go up 32-28 on Tucson, the Barnstormers began to take over.
Tucson kicker Logan Justus missed a 57-yard field goal on the ensuing possession for the Sugar Skulls.
Wimbush stretched Iowa’s lead to 39-28 on the next possession with a 15-yard rushing touchdown with 2:38 left in the third quarter.
Then, as Tucson threatened to score on Iowa’s 6-yard line, quarterback Daquan Neal fumbled, and Iowa defensive lineman Marshaun Jones returned it 40 yards for a touchdown to put the Barnstormers up 46-28 with 11:10 left in the game.
Iowa never looked back.
“I feel like, mentally, we weren’t there, and it definitely showed. Everybody wasn’t on the same page,” Neal said.
Neal played for the Barnstormers in his first two seasons in the IFL and was named the 2019 IFL MVP under head coach Wooten at Iowa, who left to take the Tucson job after the season.
“It was just another game. I got a lot of history in Iowa. I got a lot of old teammates in Iowa, so it was motivating just to see them again, but on the other side, it’s definitely different,” Neal said. “It was a good feeling to see my old teammates in there and playing against the old coaches I used to be with.”
The Sugar Skulls didn’t take long to get on the board.
Kick returner Benjamin Jones ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
Iowa running back Wimbush scored a 6-yard rushing touchdown on the following possession, and the teams would trade touchdowns to close out the first quarter, but a blocked PAT gave Iowa a 14-13 advantage.
While Tucson struggled to defend the run against Iowa’s powerful rushing attack, they held onto a 28-26 advantage at halftime.
“We made all the adjustments we can, but one thing that can’t happen is that you can’t give out heart. You can’t adjust to that,” Wooten said. “We shot our gaps. We missed a ton of tackles.”
Visibly frustrated, Wooten talked about Tucson’s issues getting into a rhythm on offense in the second half. From there, the 2018 IFL championship head coach with Iowa explained what it takes to hoist the United Bowl trophy.
“Lack of focus and lack of pushing through. What happened is you come in, you get into the playoffs, and you just go through the motions. One thing about this league is, you gotta go in hot, you gotta go in playing hard, you gotta go in focused, you gotta go in dedicated. That’s the only way you can win a championship in this game.
“If you don’t go in dedicated every game after this, you’re wasting your time, and today we showed that we wasn’t tough at all and that’s not acceptable in my book.”
The Sugar Skulls can still secure a three seed in the Western Conference Playoffs with a win in its final game of the regular season next week in San Jose against Bay Area.
If Tucson loses next week and Duke City beats Northern Arizona, the Sugar Skulls will fall to the four seed.
Neal completed 8 of 21 pass attempts for 100 yards and 3 TDs.
Mike Jones had 120 yards on 14 carries and two touchdowns.
Quinton Pedroza finished with 50 yards on three receptions and one touchdown.
The Sugar Skulls (8-7) play Saturday in San Jose against the Bay Area Panthers (1-14). 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. Murphy is a journalist product manager with the Green Valley News & the Sahuarita Sun. He is currently attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he is working towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.