Rattlers make big in-state statement in rout of Tucson Sugar Skulls

·4 min read

The Rattlers took care of the first of what is their biggest two-week stretch of the season.

They dominated the Tucson Sugar Skulls in every facet on their way to a 54-24 rout before 8,292 fans Saturday night at Footprint Center.

The Rattlers avenged an early May loss in Tucson.

Now, it's on to trying to avenge that early June loss to the Northern Arizona Wranglers next week at home for first place in the Western Division.

The Rattlers (11-3) are a half game behind the Wranglers (11-2) heading into next Saturday's showdown.

On Saturday, the Rattlers scored on every possession and stopped the Sugar Skulls six of nine possessions. One of the stops was a field goal, which, in the Indoor Football League, it's considered a stop.

Quarterbacks Daquan Neal and Gabriel Cunningham were under 50% completions.

"We had a pretty good night on both sides of the ball," coach Kevin Guy said.

The Rattlers are now 8-1 all-time against Tucson, which was trying to clinch a playoff spot.

Drew Powell played only three quarters after leading the Rattlers to a 41-17 lead. He threw four TD passes — two to Braxton Haley — and ran for two other scores. He was 11 of 16 on the night.

"We challenged our O-line this week and I thought they stepped up," Guy said. "Defensively, the last time we played, mentally we didn't get off the bus. Our defense came out and played tonight."

Dillion Winfrey, Kyree Woods and Brandon Ezell each intercepted a Daquan Neal pass in the first half. On May 7, Neal threw five TD pass, as the Sugar Skulls (7-6) scored more than 40 points in the first half and more than 70 points in the win over the Rattlers.

"I just told the DBs, the whole message this week is, 'Just have fun,' " said Winfrey, who plays center field on defense. "We get chewed out for giving up a catch, a hitch. I just told the guys, 'Let's just have fun.' Those first four or five weeks, we were having fun, celebrating with high fives, hand shakes. It's contagious.

"Football is supposed to be fun. But it's only fun if we're winning. We have to get back to winning. You could see we had a lot of fun tonight."

The message was sent on the Sugar Skulls' first series. They used up more than eight minutes, had a first and goal from the 2, and came away with nothing as Robert Landers and Davontae Merriweather made a big stop for a four-yard loss on running back Mike Jones on third down.

"It's hard to beat a team twice," Winfrey said. "Usually, the team that won the last time lets up a little bit. They think they've won already. Our back was against the wall. We're fighting for home seed in the playoffs."

Haley had his best game as a Rattlers. He surpassed 100 receiving yards, catching a third TD pass — a 37-yard pass from Demry Croft — during a mop-up final quarter that saw the Rattlers built their lead to 54-17.

Haley became the first Rattlers receiver to surpass 100 yards receiving in a game. He had 129 yards on six catches.

Haley's improvement from his first season with the Rattlers last year to now has been immense.

"First and foremost, it's my mindset," Haley said. "I remember (offensive lineman) Lamar Mady would get all over me all the time. He told me I had to get more consistent. In the offseason, I trained hard. I have a lot of confidence this year because I trusted my training. It's paying off."

This was as good as it gets for the Rattlers avenging a loss, looking in playoff mode as they try to make a statement with only two games left in the regular season.

They finish at home, where, if they win out, they'll have home field until the championship game, which is being played in Las Vegas.

"I said before the game if everybody gets to their spots, it's going to be one of those nights," Powell said. "The receivers did a great job getting to their spots."

Powell is known for his juke moves on his way to the end zone. He had one of his all-time best on a 9-yard scoring run on the first series of the second half that extended the Rattlers lead to 34-14. He put a couple of juke moves on defenders, then, at the 5, he spun away from a defender and into the end zone.

"Every time I take off, I'm just conscious of holding the ball," Powell said. "I know I'm going to score or get a first down. It's just holding onto the ball and moving forward. That's what I focused on today and it turned into a touchdown."

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at richard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Rattlers make big in-state statement in rout of Tucson Sugar Skulls