Tucson Sugar Skulls

Sugar Skulls win late-game thriller against Duke City

Tucson is now 2-3 at home after beating Duke City on Saturday evening at Tucson Arena. (Sugar Skulls photo)

In the IFL, every turnover, turnover on downs, minor miscue or replay challenge matters, and the Tucson Sugar Skulls 47-43 win over Duke City at Tucson Arena on Saturday evening proved that to be the case.

On the second to last possession of the game, Ramone Atkins connected with Carrington Thompson for a 14-yard touchdown reception to put the Sugar Skulls up 47-43 with 16 seconds left.

The moment was sweet for Atkins, who was IFL 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year with Duke City before joining the Sugar Skulls for the 2023 season — a season plagued with ups and downs for Atkins.

“It feels really good,” Atkins said. “After I locked in at the midway point of the season, I just told myself never too high, never too low. Stay right here in the middle. Stay consistent.”

A Tucson offsides penalty on the following kickoff moved the ball for Duke City to the Sugar Skulls’ 20-yard line.

With six seconds remaining, Duke City wide receiver Gary Brown caught a pass but appeared to fumble the ball as he rolled over a Tucson defender near the 5-yard line, prompting a challenge from Tucson the officials subsequently overturned.

Tucson head coach Hurtis Chinn used another challenge to contest what appeared to be clear offsides on Duke City before the snap on the same play, but his challenge was again overturned.

Before Chinn challenged the fumble, he verified with the officials if he could use two challenges on one play, knowing that he had a challenge for the offsides in his back pocket if the officials overturned his challenge that Brown had fumbled before he went down.

“We lost the first challenge, and then we were in the headsets saying to ourselves, ‘We know we won that.’ We were talking about where we will be. The ball will go back to midfield because it was offsides, and we lost that one again, and that was kind of like, ‘Wow, just keep fighting,'” Chinn said.

With the ball at the Tucson 5-yard line, a pass to the end zone from Duke City quarterback Charles McCullum was batted away by Tucson defensive back Rashie Hodge as time expired, but the referees called illegal defense, giving the Gladiators one final shot to win the game from 2-and-a-half yards out with the clock shut off.

“They said that our (defensive) end was lined up outside to tackle, and I was like, ‘That’s a heck of a time to call it.’ Especially when it comes to things like that, the officials should tap them and move them in,” said Chinn.

McCullum took it up the gut toward the end zone on a designed run play, and Tucson defensive back Traivon Bryant knocked the ball loose as he extended toward the plane of the goal line. A lengthy skirmish for the ball in the corner of end zone ensued before Hodge came up with it for a touchback to seal the deal.

“Our guys came up big. We fought for the ball under a huge pile,” Chinn said. “So once we saw that part, we were like OK, the next step is to win this challenge because their head coach was already walking on the field challenging it by the time the ball hit the ground.”

Duke City did challenge the play, arguing McCullum broke the plane of the end zone with the ball before fumbling, but the replay gods finally ruled in favor of the Sugar Skulls, and a collective roar filled the arena.

As For how Chinn plans to build on the momentum from Saturday evening, it’s all about pressing on without dwelling too much on the successes.

“Stay the course. Don’t get outside of our bodies, don’t get outside of ourselves,” he said. “Remember that we do this together. You know, sometimes when you press forward too soon or too much as a player, unfortunate things happen to you. So you have to stay the course and actually accept that we are all learning, we all are getting better, we all are gelling.”

On the game’s opening possession, Tucson Defensive lineman Melik Owens stripped McCullum on the Gladiators’ 10-yard line, and Maurice Jackson recovered it and ran it in for a touchdown.

“To begin the game I was feeling pretty confident. I knew, as a team, that it was going be a tough game, and we were going to have to start fast,” Owens said. “It was one of the things we were preaching all week. Start fast and finish strong, and I believe we did that tonight.”

Duke City (4-7) quickly evened the score at 7 at the eight-minute mark when McCullum found Brown for a 30-yard touchdown reception.

Following back-to-back turnover on downs on the game’s next two possessions — a rarity for an IFL game — Tucson regained the lead on a 3-yard rushing touchdown from Benjamin Jones to put the Sugar Skulls up 14-7 with 11:45 remaining in the second quarter.

A 1-yard rushing touchdown from Duke City running back Tim Whitfield at the 9:03 mark of the second quarter tied the game at 14. 

Atkins found wide receiver Frank Brown in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown reception to regain the lead for Tucson at 21-14 with 3:35 to go before the half.

Duke City’s Troy Evans scored a 6-yard rushing touchdown with under a minute in the first half to tie the game at 21.

The Sugar Skulls drove it down to the Duke City 1-yard line but couldn’t score before halftime.

Duke City held a 29-28 lead at the 6:47 mark in the third quarter.

McCullum scrambled for a 5-yard touchdown run, but Duke City came up short on a 2-point conversion attempt, holding on to a 35-34 lead with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter.

An 18-yard touchdown reception by Dequan Dudley from Atkins gave the Sugar Skulls a 40-35 lead after a failed 2-point conversion attempt.

McCullum then connected with Brown on a 3-yard touchdown reception, regaining the lead for Duke City at 41-40. The Gladiators failed on the 2-point conversion at the 2:49 mark of the fourth quarter, following it up with a deuce in the ensuing kickoff, to go up 43-40.

Atkins completed 17 of 23 passes for 164 yards and four touchdowns.

Jones had 38 yards on nine carries and two touchdowns.

Tucson (6-4) next plays against the San Diego Strike Force (4-6) next Saturday at 6:05 p.m. Tucson time at Tucson Arena.


 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.

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