A late-game interception helped the Tucson Sugar Skulls clinch a playoff berth in its final road game of the regular season with a 59-51 win over Duke City on Saturday afternoon in Albuquerque.
The Sugar Skulls (8-6) have qualified for the playoffs in three of the franchise’s first four seasons.
Tucson failed to clinch a playoff berth in a 40-34 loss to the Vegas Knight Hawks last Saturday at Tucson Arena.
“It’s an amazing feeling. We couldn’t get it done last week, so we all locked in at practice,” Tucson quarterback Ramone Atkins said in a postgame interview on the Indoor Football League’s YouTube channel.
The Sugar Skulls held a 13-point lead at halftime but struggled to pull away from Duke City in the second half.
An 8-yard rushing touchdown from Benjamin Jones extended Tucson’s lead to 42-29 at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, but a 5-yard touchdown reception by Troy Evans and the deuce (a kickoff that passes through the uprights) that followed cut the Sugar Skulls lead to 42-38.
Duke City’s defense held Tucson to an 18-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to keep it a one-possession game at 45-38.
In what ended up being the play of the game, Tucson defensive back Rashie Hodge, a former U of A linebacker who played under Jedd Fisch in his first season as Arizona head coach in 2021, picked up an interception on a deep pass from Duke City quarterback Charles McCullum on the game’s next possession.
A 5-yard rushing touchdown from Atkins —his 18th rushing touchdown of the season— extended Tucson’s lead to 52-38 with under four minutes remaining in the game. Atkins was the IFL 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year with Duke City before joining the Sugar Skulls for the 2023 season.
Duke City (5-9) made it close with a late 1-yard touchdown run from former Tucson quarterback and current Duke City backup quarterback Demry Croft, but an 8-yard rushing touchdown from Benjamin Jones with a minute remaining, all but sealed the deal for the Sugar Skulls.
Another 1-yard rushing touchdown from Croft with 30 seconds on the clock cut Tucson’s lead to eight points, but it wasn’t enough for Duke City.
Tucson was up 7-0 when its defense forced a turnover on downs on Duke City’s opening possession on 4th-and-2 from midfield when Trae’varis Ferrell and Melik Owens sacked McCullum in the backfield.
The Sugar Skulls would quickly extend the lead to 14-0 when Atkins connected with Daylon Person for a 15-yard touchdown reception.
An 11-yard touchdown reception to Evans cut Tucson’s lead to 14-7 with under a minute in the first quarter. Duke City scored a deuce on the ensuing kickoff to close the gap to 14-9.
After exchanging touchdowns with the Gladiators, the Sugar Skulls stretched its lead to 28-16 on a 2-yard direct-snap rushing touchdown from Mike Jones with two minutes left in the first half.
Duke City’s Tyron Laughinghouse recovered Tucson’s failed onside kick attempt that followed, running it back for a touchdown to cut the Sugar Skulls’ lead to 28-22, but a late first-half 20-yard touchdown reception by Carrington Thompson gave Tucson a 35-22 heading into halftime.
A 2-yard rushing touchdown from Croft with 9:03 remaining in the third quarter cut into Tucson’s 13-point halftime lead.
Tucson next plays the Green Bay Blizzard (7-6) Saturday, July 15, at 6:05 p.m. Tucson time at Tucson Arena in the final game of the regular season.
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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.