With two games left in the regular season, the undefeated Arizona Rattlers still had not clinched home field advantage throughout the Indoor Football League playoffs and were facing a must-win situation with 2nd place Iowa only a game back and holding the potential tiebreaker.
Arizona faced its stiffest competition of the season in the form of the Tucson Sugar Skulls, who led by as much as 21 points in the 1st half before the Rattlers rallied, downing their in-state rival, 50-49, in overtime in front of 13,755 fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena Saturday night.
Arizona (13-0) started fast as quarterback Drew Powell connected with wideout Dez Stewart for a 28-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage to give the Rattlers a 7-0 lead.
Tucson (6-7) answered with an eight-play, 39-yard drive that culminated in an eight-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jake Medlock to even the score.
Much of the remaining first half saw Arizona commit a number of miscues that resulted in points for the Sugar Skulls, capped by a Medlock touchdown pass to Rico Brown that gave Tucson a 35-14 advantage with less than a minute until halftime.
However, the Rattlers finished strong as, on the ensuing kick-off, Jarrod Harrington scooped up a squib kick at the goal line, picked up some blocks and raced 50 yards to paydirt to pull his team within 14 points. Despite missing a long field goal as the half expired, the Sugar Skulls looked to be firmly in control with a two-touchdown lead and possession to start the 2nd half.
Arizona’s defense would be equal to the task on the opening drive of the 3rd quarter as linebacker Ryan Langford sacked Medlock on 4th down. The offense, in turn, did its part as Powell found Jabre Lolley for a 10-yard score that, after a missed extra point, trimmed the Tucson lead to eight.
After the Rattlers’ defense forced another turnover on downs, Powell engineered a four-play, 29-yard drive, capped off by a seven-yard touchdown pass to Harrington. Harrington, who is the holder on special teams, found the end zone again on the ensuing extra point, tying the score at 35.
The teams traded scores and were still tied in the final minutes of regulation. Medlock drove his team deep into Arizona territory and called his own number on 1st and goal but was stopped at the 2-yard line and was writhing on the turf for several minutes before getting to the Sugar Skulls’ bench on his own power. Back-up quarterback Matt Behrendt, who was cut by the Rattlers in preseason, failed to find the end zone and Arizona took over with 1:20 to play.
Powell moved his team into Tucson territory with under a minute to play, but a holding penalty made it a 3rd and long situation. Lolley was close to a 1st down with a 19-yard gain on a screen pass. However, due to new yard markers and a lack of communication from the sideline, Rattlers’ head coach Kevin Guy was not aware of the correct down and distance, calling another play on 4th down that was stopped for a loss, giving the ball back to the Sugar Skulls with nine seconds left in regulation.
An incomplete pass and a missed field goal by Tucson sent the game to overtime.
In the extra frame, the Sugar Skulls started with the ball and scored on a Ben Jones’ 4-yard TD plunge, putting the onus on Arizona to keep the game going.
Powell answered the call once again, tossing a 7-yard score to Stewart on the 3rd play of the drive. Opting to end the game at this point, Guy sent his offense back on the field to attempt the two-point conversion. Featuring a formation with defensive lineman lined up at receiver, Powell took the shotgun snap, sprinted to his right, turned the corner and skipped into the end zone for a successful two points, giving the Rattlers their most dramatic victory of the season.
“We had that two-point play in our back pocket for that situation,” Powell said. “We had that play ready to go. When the game is on the line, I want the ball in my hands. I definitely felt comfortable.”
After losing last year’s IFL semifinal game to Sioux Falls on a blocked extra point attempt in overtime, Guy was understandably leery of putting his team’s fortunes on a kicker in a similar situation.
“We play to win the game,” Guy said. “I wasn’t going to put that on our kicker, not after we lost last year. We want home-field advantage. We want (the championship) to go through the desert.”
– It was announced this week that, due to scheduling conflicts, the Rattlers would play their postseason games at Gila River Arena in Glendale. The first such game would be played on Saturday, June 29th. If they win, Arizona would host the United Bowl on July 11th. The only other time the Rattlers played in Glendale was the 2016 Arena Bowl, which saw Arizona fall into an early hole and lose to the Philadelphia Soul, 56-42. It was also the Rattlers’ final game as members of the Arena Football League.
– Arizona dodged a huge bullet late in regulation. With the Rattlers driving for a potential game-winning score, Powell appeared to complete a pass to Lolley for a 1st down, but Lolley bobbled the ball and it fell to the turf, where it was recovered by Tucson and called a fumble on the field. Guy threw the challenge flag and the play was overturned on review.
– The game, at times, was a see-saw battle of quarterbacks as Powell and Medlock traded blows like only two of the game’s best could. Powell finished 13-20 passing for 158 yards, 4 TDs and an interception. He also rushed for 29 yards. Medlock was 17-25 for 190 yards and two scores, but was a force on the ground, rushing for 66 yards and 3 TDs.
– Guy let his emotions get the best of him during his post-game comments over the public address system, dropping a couple expletives while proclaiming the championship runs through the desert. Later, during his media conference, the Arizona head coach/general manager apologized to the “families and the kids out there. We were dealing with some things this week that had me upset that I’ll address when the season is over.”
The Arizona Rattlers conclude their regular season schedule, looking to complete their first ever unbeaten season when they host the expansion San Diego Strike Force at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Saturday, June 15th. Kick-off is at 5 p.m. All games can be seen live on YouTube.