With a chance to split in the Western Conference standings and, more importantly, take a step toward one of the final IFL playoff spots, the Tucson Sugar Skulls beat the Vegas Knight Hawks 39-32 on Saturday. evening in Tucson.

The Sugar Skulls’ seventh win in 2022 marks a franchise record for most wins in a season. The past two games have seen the Sugar Skulls set season lows for points allowed.

Tucson’s (7-5) triumph gives the Sugar Skulls a 2 1/2 game lead in the Western Conference standings over Vegas (5-8) with four games remaining; the Duke City Gladiators (6-7) are just behind Tucson.

“It was a big win for us,” Sugar Skulls head coach Dixie Wooten said. “The (Knight Hawks’) playoff lives were on the line tonight and they came in and gave it their all. … Our guys were determined to step in at the end.”

Tucson running back Mike Jones — the IFL’s leading rushing scorer — put the Sugar Skulls ahead 7-0 early with a 13-yard touchdown, taking his season tally to 32.

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Sugar Skulls quarterback Daquan Neal, who completed 11 of 16 passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns, threw an interception late in the first quarter — just his second of the season. Neal threw for 26 consecutive touchdowns in seven games before throwing his second interception; his first was in Tucson’s 67-66 loss to the San Diego Strike Force.

“Basically a disconnect between the wide receiver and the quarterback,” Neal said.

After a pair of Vegas field goals by Nolan Kohorst, including a 38-yard one to start the second quarter, Neal found wide receiver Carrington Thompson for a six-yard touchdown, but the Knight Hawks responded with a touchdown from pass with six seconds remaining in the first. halftime to take a 19-13 halftime lead.

The Knight Hawks’ second-half opener chewed up 9:09, resulting in a 21-yard field goal miss.

“There were a few penalties that gave them first downs, so I wasn’t happy about that, but being resilient and staying on the course…that was huge,” Wooten said. “We didn’t give up”

The Sugar Skulls did not begin their first practice of the second half until 5:04 remaining in the third quarter, but tied the game with a 28-yard strike from Neal to Quinton Pedroza; Tucson missed the PAT snap.

New Vegas quarterback Cameron Dukes gave the Knight Hawks a 26-19 finish in the third quarter. Sugar Skulls second-year wide receiver Jazeric Pederson tied the game 26-26 with a leaping catch into the Tucson bench in the corner of the end zone.

The defensive stop that Tucson craved for the entire game came in the form of a takeaway, when defensive lineman Sugar Skulls chased Dukes, forcing the Vegas quarterback to throw an interception at defensive end Luke Ancrum Jr. Jones scored his second rushing touchdown of the game with five yards.

“I honestly didn’t think he was going to throw the ball, but he ended up throwing it,” Ancrum said. “Excellent execution by everyone.”

After a missed PAT after the Dukes’ rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Sugar Skulls led 33-32 just before the one-minute warning. Vegas’ onside kick attempt ricocheted off Pedroza’s leg and dribbled into the end zone, the Sugar Skulls recovered it for a touchdown to take a 39-32 lead after Justus’ missed PAT .

Although Vegas stormed the field for an eventual tied – or game-winning – touchdown, the Sugar Skulls responded with a defensive stance as time ticked away.

“It’s amazing, because we deal with these defensive situations at the end of every practice, and our defense has gotten much stronger. … It’s hard work and determination,” Wooten said.

Wooten added: “Giving up 30 points in the last three games is huge.”

Up next: Tucson will have a rematch with the Arizona Rattlers (10-3) — and Sugar Skulls head coach and co-owner Kevin Guy — at the Footprint Center in Phoenix on Saturday. The Sugar Skulls defeated the Rattlers earlier this season for the first time in franchise history.

Contact sports producer Justin Spears at 573-4312 or [email protected]. On Twitter: @JustinESports

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