Crucial interceptions, a stagnant second half on offense, and a last-minute failed two-point conversion sealed the fate of the Tucson Sugar Skulls in a 44-42 loss to Bay Area in front of 3,027 fans at Tucson Arena on Saturday evening.
Bay Area erased Tucson’s six-point lead at halftime, holding the Sugar Skulls to 12 second-half points.
“We’ve got to do better when it counts,” Tucson head coach Hurtis Chinn said. Sometimes for three and a half quarters as a team, we would be just fine, probably the best team in the league, but when it comes to certain moments and certain situations that we’ve been practicing going over, it’s disheartening that we can know what’s going on, we can know the situation, we can be prepared for the situation, and just don’t execute the situation. It’s disheartening.”
Tucson quarterback Ramone Atkins ran it in for a 2-yard touchdown on a quarterback keeper that brought Tucson within two points of Bay Area at 44-42 with one minute left in the game.
The Sugar Skulls came up short on what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion when a pass to Carrington Thompson got batted down at the goal line on a play designed for Mike Jones as the primary receiver on the outside.
“All week we’ve been keying in on that particular part of the field. We knew what (defense) they would be in. The play was designed to go to Mike (Mike Jones),” Atkins said. “What happened was I lost him in my vision. He popped open late, and I was already off of him. Should have stayed with it.”
Tucson came into the game sitting in third place in the Western Conference behind Bay Area and Flagstaff. Given that Flagstaff lost to Duke City on the road and the Rattlers won on Saturday, losing to the Panthers meant the difference between moving into first place in the Western Conference and sitting in fourth place where they currently sit.
After opening the season 3-0 on the road, Tucson (4-4) has dropped four of its last five games, something Chinn chalks up to complacency.
“Honestly, some people in a locker room go complacent,” Chinn said. “We didn’t take that success and keep building on it, and keep rolling on it and learn, as a professional, that everybody’s going to give you their best shot every week. Just because you’re 3-0, nobody’s going to come and not give you their best. They’re actually going to play you harder because you’re 3-0.
The win for Bay Area marks a revenge win for the Panthers offensive coordinator Dixie Wooten in his return to Tucson. Wooten went 15-16 in the two previous seasons as the Sugar Skulls head coach.
The Sugar Skulls traveled to Bay Area on April 16, erasing a 16-point deficit to defeat the Panthers 34-30 on April 16.
Chinn chatted with Wooten before the game. He coached with Wooten on the Iowa Barnstormers and was the offensive coordinator on his Tucson staff in 2022.
“We both were upfront and honest with each other about how bad we wanted to win this game,” Chinn said. “It wasn’t a joking thing— but as competitors, as coaches, and knowing the situation that where we’re at in this — we both put it out there that we wanted to win this game.”
Tucson got on the scoreboard first when Jones ran it in on third and goal from the 4-yard line on the game’s opening drive.
Bay Area (6-3) would score two consecutive touchdowns and a rouge to claim a 14-7 lead at the 7:00 mark.
After a methodical drive, Atkins scored on a 4-yard rushing touchdown to tie the game at 14 heading into the second quarter.
Tucson’s defense held strong on the opening drive of the second quarter, holding Bay Area to a 27-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 17-14 lead at the 10:11 mark
Tucson regained the lead when Atkins connected with Thompson to put the Sugar Skulls up 21-17 with 7:24 to go in the second quarter.
Sugar Skulls defensive lineman Dominion Ezinwa would come up big with a quarterback sack in Bay Area’s end zone for a safety to put Tucson up 23-17.
Jones added a 2-yard rushing touchdown with 2:06 remaining before half to put the Sugar Skulls up 30-17.
A 28-yard touchdown pass from Dalton Sneed to Nih-jer Jackson closed the gap for Bay Area to 30-24 with one minute to go before the break.
Tucson held that 30-24 lead when Bay Area drove the ball down to the Tucson 16-yard line on the opening possession of the third quarter.
The Sugar Skulls defense forced a four-and-out, but Atkins threw his second interception of the evening on a deep pass a few plays later on the next possession.
“To throw an interception up a touchdown on second down is very unfortunate, especially when we didn’t have to,” Chinn said. “We can take some underneath routes and maybe go with 33 at worst case scenario, keep the chains moving to move forward through the running game. But the fact that we forced the ball downfield when we didn’t have to hurt.”
Tucson (4-4) next plays at the Vegas Knight Hawks (4-5) next Saturday at 7:05 p.m. Tucson time. Vegas features 2022 Tucson starting quarterback Daquan Neal behind center.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writer 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 has a bachelor’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU.