A slow start haunted the No. 3 seed Tucson Sugar Skulls in a 46-34 road loss to No. 2 seed Bay Area Panthers in the opening round of the IFL Western Conference playoffs on Sunday afternoon. It was Tucson’s third playoff appearance in its fourth season of operation since the franchise’s inaugural season in 2019, but the Sugar Skulls have yet to secure a playoff win.
Tucson gave up points or came away empty on its first three possessions of the game, going down 22-0 in the first quarter — a challenge to come back from in any level of football, but especially the IFL, where a scoreless possession or two can decide the outcome.
On the game’s opening possession on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Tucson quarterback Ramone Atkins fumbled, and Tevaughn Grant recovered it and ran it back for a touchdown to give Bay Area an early 7-0 lead.
Bay Area (11-5) forced a turnover on downs, holding Tucson to a four-and-out in its territory on the following possession. Panthers running back Justin Rankin scored a 10-yard rushing touchdown soon after, and just like that, Bay Area had a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
On Tucson’s third possession of the afternoon, Bay Area’s defense forced Tucson into a field goal attempt from its 4-yard line that essentially served as a punt. Cutrell Haywood returned it to Tucson’s 10-yard line. The Panthers scored on a 5-yard touchdown reception by Nih-jer Jackson, and the two-point conversion that followed put Bay Area up 22-0 heading into the second quarter.
Tucson (9-7) would get back to within nine points of Bay Area from short rushing touchdowns from Atkins on consecutive possessions before the Panthers extended the lead to 29-13 when Marquise Bridges returned a kickoff 34 yards for a touchdown 21 seconds before halftime.
Bay Area held a 39-27 lead after three quarters.
Panthers kicker Craig Peterson missed a 39-yard field goal at the 9:42 mark of the fourth quarter, and Carrington Thompson caught his third touchdown reception of the afternoon on the following possession, cutting Bay Area’s lead to 39-34 with 3:33 remaining.
A 4-yard rushing touchdown from Rankin with under a minute to go stretched Bay Area’s lead back to 12 points, putting the game out of reach for Tucson.
Bay Area’s offensive coordinator Dixie Wooten went 15-16 in two seasons as head coach with the Sugar Skulls, including last season when Tucson lost to the Northern Arizona Wranglers in the 2022 IFL Western Conference Playoffs opening round, finishing with a 9-8 record, a franchise record in wins which Tucson tied this season.
Tucson head coach Hurtis Chinn was named the 2022 IFL Assistant Coach of the Year in his second season with the Sugar Skulls as the offensive coordinator before being named head coach ahead of the 2023 season.
Bay Area will now face No. 4 seed Northern Arizona (8-8) in the final round of the IFL Western Conference playoffs on Saturday at 6 p.m. Tucson time. Northern Arizona upset the No. 1 seed Arizona Rattlers on July 22 to advance.
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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.