PHOENIX — It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
Luckily for the Arizona Rattlers, they excelled in both aspects on Saturday night.
Racing out to a 16-point lead, the Rattlers withstood a furious Tucson Sugar Skulls rally en route to a 44-34 victory in the 2021 home opener Saturday at the Snake Pit.
“There aren’t going to be any ‘gimme games’ this year,” said Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy, also a minority owner of the Tucson Indoor Football League franchise. “This league got a lot better during the pandemic. Tucson has a good football team — they did a great job of changing up their gameplan tonight. They pulled ahead but we did a good job of coming back in the end.”
The old sports adage says that a rivalry isn’t born until the “new kid on the block” knocks off the established franchise. Tucson still has yet to beat Arizona in five tries, but Saturday’s game was one of the most competitive played between the two teams connected by Interstate 10.
“I give (Tucson Head Coach) Dixie (Wooten) and his crew credit. They made us work for everything,” Guy said. “They pushed us in the second half but we made the adjustments we needed to make.”
The first Rattlers home crowd in more than 700 days — a boisterous total of 5,766 that seemed like more — and a live national audience on Stadium was chomping at the bit to see some live indoor football at the renovated Snake Pit. The Rattlers didn’t take long to appease them,
Arizona (3-1) methodically marched down the field and quarterback Drew Powell escaped pressure, broke through the line and scored a TD from 13 yards out. Ernesto Lacayo added the PAT and the Rattlers led 7-0 early.
With fans still cheering that first touchdown, the Arizona defense made its presence felt.
Tucson (1-3) was backed up near its own goal line and the Rattlers’ Ricky Wyatt rushed through and corralled Skulls QB Demry Croft in the end zone. Croft dumped the ball into the stands but was called for intentional grounding, giving Arizona a safety and a 9-0 lead at the 10:41 mark of the first quarter.
With a chance to go up by even more, Powell, the reigning IFL Offensive Player of the Week, cashed in with his second rushing score of the game — this time for 8 yards out. Lacayo’s kick was good and Arizona had a 16-0 lead with 4:13 left in the first quarter.
On the verge of being blown out early, the Sugar Skulls kept their cool and got on the scoreboard two minutes into the second quarter. Croft got solid protection and connected with receiver Kent Shelby II for a 29-yard score — kicker Daniel Bowen had his PAT blocked but the Skulls had climbed within 16-6.
The teams traded scores over the next nine minutes — Arizona running back Darrell Monroe scored a 2-yard rushing TD but that was countered by a Croft 9-yard scramble.
Powell’s first passing TD of the game went for 11 yards to Jamal Miles on the next drive, but the Rattlers’ defense fell totally asleep on the ensuing drive when Tucson’s Mike Jones hauled in a quick pass and lumbered 25 yards down the right sideboards. Bowen’s PAT brought the Sugar Skulls within 30-20.
Knowing Tucson would receive the second-half kickoff, the Rattlers looked to manage the clock and score last in the first half. A huge coverage bust by the Skulls allowed Miles to break free into the secondary with about 30 seconds left but Powell misfired on the pass as Miles made a dive with no defender within 15 yards of him.
“We missed some throws tonight,” Guy admitted.
Powell agreed, saying he needs to “be better” in those kind of situations.
That miscue proved costly as Lacayo was forced to try a 36-yard field goal at the halftime gun. Tucson broke through the line and blocked the kick, stealing momentum heading into the locker room.
“To come back from 23-6 down and be right in the game at halftime, that showed me something,” Wooten said of his Sugar Skulls.
The Sugar Skulls continued their push by scoring first in the second half. Croft lofted an 11-yard strike to Jazeric Peterson and when Bowen kicked the PAT, Tucson was within 30-27.
The Skulls’ defense got a stop when Powell suffered a fourth-down incompletion on Arizona’s next drive.
A couple minutes later, Tucson silenced the home crowd when Jones bulled in for a two-yard score. The PAT completed a 34-14 scoring run and Tucson led 34-30 after three quarters.
The final stanza saw Arizona bear down and make plays while Tucson made a pair of crucial mistakes.
Early in the fourth, Monroe scampered around the left end for a 5-yard rushing score. Lacayo converted and Arizona again led by 3.
“Their game plan was to stop the run,” Monroe explained. “We had to earn everything tonight.”
The Rattlers’ D forced a fourth-and-4 at the 8-minute mark.
Tucson went into its bag of tricks and tried a trick play, pitching the ball back then attempting a pass to the left sideline. The play never had a chance as the ball fluttered harmlessly to the turf.
The defensive stop energized the crowd and Powell, who walked in for a 1-yard touchdown with 3:35 left in the game.
“I just wanted to make a play for my team,” Powell said.
The Sugar Skulls’ last gasp was snuffed out when Arizona’s Dillion Winfrey intercepted Croft on a long pass attempt with two minutes left. When they needed it most, Arizona’s defense got the job done by pitching a shutout in the fourth quarter.
“It was time to get it,” Winfrey said. “You gotta give credit to the defensive line for getting pressure. Plays that are made downfield — without those guys up front, those interceptions don’t happen.”
Despite the defeat, Wooten said after the game he was proud of his team’s effort.
“This is a young team and we’re going to get better,” he said. “There’s nowhere to go but up.”
Tucson’s Croft finished with 70 yards rushing and one score on the ground. He added 142 yards and 3 TDs but threw the critical fourth-quarter interception.
Powell led the way for Arizona with four total touchdowns — three on the ground and one more in the air. He rushed 12 times for 84 yards while completing 15 of 26 passes for 145 yards and no interceptions. Miles led the receiving corps with four catches, 47 yards and a score.
Defensively, Wyatt filled the state sheet with 8.5 tackles and a sack.
The Rattlers return to action on Saturday, June 19 when they travel to Albuquerque to face the Duke City Gladiators. The first-ever meeting between the two teams is set to kick off at 5:05 p.m. and can be seen live on YouTube.
Both Guy and Powell mentioned the Rattlers fans — the so-called 9th Man — in the postgame, saying they brought the energy when the home team needed it.
“The Snake Pit showed up,” Powell explained. “It was awesome. It got loud and gave us the momentum we needed.”