After a slow start on offense, the Tucson Sugar Skulls defeated the Vegas Knight Hawks 39-32 on Saturday night at Tucson Arena to set a franchise record for most wins in a season.
Tucson is now 7-5 with four games remaining in the regular season and in an excellent position to make the playoffs. The seven wins top the six wins the Sugar Skulls notched in the franchise’s first two seasons.
“It was a big win,” Tucson head coach Dixie Wooten said. “Those guys playoff life was on the line, and they came in and gave us their everything. They mixed up a lot of stuff that we hadn’t seen before on film, and they came and played pretty good, but our guys were determined to step up at the end.
“It feels good that we practiced those defensive scenarios at the end in practice now, and our defense stood up big time.”
On the opening drive of the fourth quarter, with the game tied at 26-26, Tucson quarterback Daquan Neal connected with wide receiver Jazeric Pederson on a 29-yard touchdown pass that Pederson snatched as he leaped over the back end zone wall.
In a significant turning point in the game, on the Knight Hawks’ next possession, Tucson defensive lineman Luke Ancrum came away with an interception, running it back to the Vegas 13-yard line.
“It really was the play call, and then from the D-line to the linebackers to the DBs, we dropped,” he said. “Honestly, I didn’t think he was going to throw the ball, but he ended up throwing it to me. Great execution by everybody.”
With 54 seconds left in the game, Vegas quarterback Cameron Dukes connected with running back Jordan Cronkrite for a 4-yard touchdown. Knight Hawks’ kicker Nolan Kohorst pulled the PAT attempt left, leaving Tucson up 33-32.
Vegas attempted an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff that ricocheted off the knee of Quinton Pedroza at the Knight Hawks 9-yard line before he tracked the ball down and dove on it in the end zone for a touchdown.
“I played baseball, so, the biggest thing is always keeping it in front of you, especially when guys are coming to take your head off,” he said,” You have to get the ball from the postion they put me in. The coaches have a lot of trust in me, so my ultimate goal was to stay in front of it if I can’t get it. It took a good hop, it was a great onside kick, but I kept it in front.
“I know that ten out of ten times I’m gonna be the guy that’s running the opposite way, and me running that way to the ball, whatever way it took, I just had to find it, and when I found it, I looked up, and I sprinted toward it, and I got on top of it.”
Tucson kicker Logan Justus missed the following PAT attempt, leaving the door open for Vegas with the Sugar Skulls holding onto a 39-32 lead with 52 seconds remaining in the game.
On the following possession, the Knight Hawks drove the ball down the field to the seven-yard line, and with two seconds on the clock, they had one last chance to tie the game and send it into overtime or go for the win.
Duke sailed a pass out of the reach of his receivers over the corner end zone wall, and Tucson escaped with a franchise-record seventh win of the season.
The win marked the second win over Western Conference foe Vegas this year, giving the Sugar Skulls a 2.5 lead over the Knight Hawks and drastically improving its chances of making the postseason.
Tucson had trouble finding its rhythm on offense in the first half, with Neal throwing his second interception of the season when a pass slipped through the fingers of wide receiver Carrington Thompson with 3:50 remaining in the second quarter.
The Knight Hawks held a 19-13 lead at halftime.
Vegas opened the third quarter with a nearly 9-minute drive, a long drive in any level of football and an eternity by IFL standards, before being stalled out and coming up empty when Kohorst missed a 21-yard field goal with 5:24 remaining in the quarter.
Neal completed 11 of 16 pass attempts for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
Jones rushed for 42 yards on nine carries and had two touchdowns.
Thompson had had five receptions for 47 yards and one touchdown.
Tucson’s defense held the Knight Hawks to a season-low in points allowed, continuing the trend for a third consecutive game. The Sugar Skulls held Northern Arizona to 34 points in a loss on May 2 and held Bay Area to 33 points last Saturday, coming off the bye week.
Tucson is in third place in the Westen Conference.
The Sugar Skulls (7-5) play the Arizona Rattlers Saturday at Footprint Center in Phoenix (10-3). Kickoff is at 6:05 p.m. Tucson defeated the Rattlers 74-63 in their previous matchup on May 7 at Tucson Arena.
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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.