The Tucson Sugar Skulls improved to a franchise-record start at 3-0 — all the wins on the road — rallying Sunday from a 16-0 deficit late in the first half to beat the Bay Area Panthers 34-30 in San Jose, Calif.
The Sugar Skulls turned the tide of momentum with three touchdown passes in the second half from Ramone Atkins to Carrington Thompson, with all of the plays occurring on fourth down.
Tucson is the only unbeaten team in the Indoor Football League’s Western Division heading into Saturday’s home opener at the Tucson Arena against the San Diego Strike Force (1-3). Kickoff is at 6:05 p.m.
The Sugar Skulls defeated the Panthers (1-2) in a matchup with former head coach Dixie Wooten, who is Bay Area’s offensive coordinator. His good friend Hurtis Chinn is in his first year as the Sugar Skulls’ head coach after serving as offensive coordinator last season.
Bay Area built a 16-0 lead and was attempting a 20-yard field goal when momentum completely shifted with 1:30 left in the first half.
Dominion Ezinwa snagged the ball of the foot of the placekicker and ran a few yards before fumbling. But former Arizona Wildcats linebacker Rashie Hodge Jr. (who later had his second interception of the season) grabbed the ball and ran to the Bay Area 24.
Atkins scored on a quarterback keeper from 2 yards with 6 seconds left in the half to cut the lead to 16-7.
Tucson had the ball to open the second half and converted on a fourth-down play to cut the lead to 16-14 with 12:42 left in the third quarter.
Atkins completed the first of his three fourth-down touchdown passes to Thompson — this one from 19 yards.
Mike Jones scored on a 2-yard touchdown run to put Tucson ahead 21-16 with 4:21 remaining in the third quarter.
A 30-yard TD pass from Dalton Sneed to Nih-jer Jackson with 12:45 remaining gave Bay Area a 22-21 lead. A fake point-after attempt was stopped by Tucson.
Tucson took the lead for good on a 16-yard touchdown strike from Atkins to Thompson, again on fourth down, with 10:27 left. After a failed 2-point conversion attempt, Tucson’s lead was 27-22.
Bay Area had a fourth-and-1 attempt stuffed by Tucson defensive lineman Ronald Collins and defensive back JJ Dallas when Sneed tried to run the ball in with 5:41 left.
Atkins again connected with Thompson for a 38-yard score on fourth-and-7, giving Tucson a 34-22 lead with 1:00 left.
Sneed completed a 10-yard touchdown pass and then a 2-point conversion pass to Jackson, cutting the lead to 34-30 with 29 seconds left.
An onside-kick attempt failed for Bay Area and Tucson went into Victory Formation.
The only other unbeaten IFL team is the Frisco Fighters (4-0) of the Eastern Division. Frisco and Tucson do not meet in the regular season.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.