The Tucson Sugar Skulls blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, losing to the San Diego Strike Force 67-66 in its 2022 season home opener on Saturday evening at Tucson Arena in a game that was decided as time expired.
The Sugar Skulls began to pull away from San Diego midway through the third quarter, extending the lead to 60-43 with 11:18 remaining in the game, and then the wheels began to fall off.
San Diego defensive end Deshon Cooper and linebacker Ricky Wyatt tackled Mike Jones for a safety with 8:59 left on the clock. Soon after came an 8-yard rushing touchdown from San Diego running back Travon Van with 7:15 remaining, and with the two-point conversion that followed, the Strike Force had suddenly closed the gap to 60-53.
Tucson running back Benjamin Jones gave the Sugar Skulls some separation when he returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards for a touchdown to stretch the lead back to 66-53, but the missed kick on the PAT would haunt the Sugar Skulls.
A 4-yard touchdown run by Van with 3:01 remaining would make it a one-possession game at 66-60. On the next possession, with 54 seconds remaining, a pass by Daquan Neal was intercepted by E.J Johnson.
San Diego would tie the game as time expired when Steve Cluley found Rashad Ross for an 8-yard touchdown pass. The successful PAT kick with no time on the clock was the nail in the coffin for the Sugar Skulls.
After a seesaw first half with seven lead changes and one tie, Tucson held a 40-30 lead at halftime.
“It was one of the worst games ever; we gotta play defense. Any game that I’ve coached and we score 67 points; the score would be 67-30,” Tucson head coach Dixie Wooten said after the loss.
Two-time IFL MVP Neal completed 10 of 12 pass attempts for 150 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions in his first home game with the Sugar Skulls.
“…We thought we had the game won, and it then just came down to the last play, and at that point, it was just who wanted it more,” Neal said. “We’re a young team, and, like I said, everybody just thought the game was over. I don’t think they understand how fast the game is. Once you get the momentum in this game, it’s hard to stop it.”
Wooten didn’t mince words when asked about his message to the team in practice next week.
“It’s gonna be hard-nosed, we’re going to be doing everything by the book,” he said. “If you mess up, you’ll probably be sent home. Everything is by the book.”
Jones rushed for 90 yards on 12 carries and had five touchdowns.
The Tucson Sugar Skulls (1-2) play Saturday in Albuquerque against Duke City (1-3). Kickoff is at 5:05 p.m Tucson time.
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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.