Photo: 15 Imeek Watkins returns the kickoff 56 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, on his way for a 56-yard kickoff return for a touchdown
Wranglers head coach Less Moss said that the goal of the game was to score on every possession. Well, they darn near did that, in a 49-30 first round playoff win over the Tucson Sugar Skulls, in Prescott Valley Saturday night (July 23rd). It was the third time in four meetings this season that the Wranglers beaten the Sugar Skulls.
The atmosphere of the event center was electrifying from the beginning, as the Wranglers scored on the opening kickoff when Bill Atkins bolted down the field, nailing the returner in the end zone for a rouge, which is a point for the kicking team when the player does not get out of his own end zone. The Northern Arizona defense was true to form as they held the Sugar Skulls on a fourth and six, setting up the Wrangler offense. Quarterback Kaleb Barker’s three-yard rushing TD and the PAT by newly acquired kicker Craig Peterson, increased the lead to 8-0.
Tucson responded with a successful drive ending with a one yard run by Mike Jones to close the gap to 8-6, as the extra point was missed. Northern Arizona added one more opening quarter touchdown when Barker connected with Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for an 11-yard touchdown.
Trae Meadows came up with an acrobatic interception of a Daquan Neal pass, setting the plate once again for another Wranglers score. Imeek Watkins scored his first, and certainly not his most exciting touchdown of the night when he ran the ball in from nine yards out.
Trailing 22-6, the Sugar Skulls had to settle for a 43-yard field goal as the Wrangler defense continued to be a thorn in their offensive side. The three points closed the gap to 22-9, but that score quickly changed as Imeek Watkins took the kickoff 56 yards leaving Sugar Skulls in the dust as the crowd went wild, extending the lead to 29-9 with 6:25 left in the first half. Imeek Watkins said, “I saw some space and was able to hit the holes that my blockers set up for me. We had a game plan, and we knew what we had to do coming in. The offense did a good job controlling the ball and the defense did their thing. It was a good team win. We just now have to get ready for next week.”
Tucson came back with a touchdown pass from Neal to Quentin Pedroza to make it 29-15. Peterson added a 37-yard field goal to increase the lead to 32-15.
In a matter of three plays, Tucson pulled within one score. A breakdown in the defensive secondary cost Northern Arizona as Neal hit Jazeric Peterson on a 45-yard strike on the first play to cut their deficit to 32-22. Logan Justus added the extra point, and two more points on the ensuing kickoff, as he kicked the ball, deflecting it through the uprights to make the score 32-24. (In the IFL you can kick the ball like a long field goal on the kickoff for two points.)
A somewhat stunned crowd sensed a Sugar Skull comeback, getting right back behind the Wranglers as Northern Arizona got a big 42-yard field goal to go into halftime by Peterson to lead 35-24 at the break.
The game slowed in the second half as the Wrangler offense did enough controlling the ball on time consuming drives, and when the Sugar Skulls did get the ball, the defense gave them plenty of problems.
The Wranglers received the second half kickoff and got some more breathing room on a 14-yard rushing TD by Barker to go up 42-24. A missed field goal attempt by Tucson was their only scoring chance of the third quarter. Northern Arizona got the ball back and went on another time-consuming drive to kill off the rest of the third quarter.
Barker hit Chiaokhiao-Bowman on a three-yard TD pass to increase the lead to 49-24 on the opening play of the fourth quarter. Tucson used a lot of time to score on a Mike Jones five-yard run. The two-point play failed and it was 49-30. The Sugar Skulls recovered a successful onside kick, but on the very next play, Neal’s pass was picked off by Tevin Homer. Tucson was able to block a 22-yard field goal attempt by the Wranglers in the final minutes of the fourth, but nothing came of it as the Wranglers got the ball back and ran out the clock.
The clock eventually ticked down as the Northern Arizona Wranglers will move on to face the Arizona Rattlers in Phoenix in the semifinals, with the winner going to Las Vegas for the IFL Championship. Game time is set for 6:05 pm and can be seen on YouTube.
Statistically, Barker led the Wranglers offense going 11-16 104 yards 2 TDs and also rushed for 71 yards and 2 more touchdowns. Craig Peterson was a perfect 6-6 on extra points and 2-3 on field goals as the last one was blocked. Ramaud Chiaokhiaho-Bowman led in receiving with six catches for 58 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jerrime Neal caught three passes for 31 yards. Quentin Randolph had just one catch for 10 yards.
Defensively, the Wranglers got a big game from Darin Hungerford, who led the team with 10 tackles, and said, “We just wanted to come out and dominate and to make sure they had no chance at the end, and we did just that.” JaQuan Artis and Bill Atkins both had big games as well with nine tackles each.
Tucson was led by their quarterback Daquan Neal who went 19-31 for 225 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. Mike Jones was held to just 29 yards rushing but did get two touchdowns. Seven different receivers caught passes, led by Jazeric Peterson who caught five for 92 yards and a touchdown. Quentin Pedroza pulled in six for 70 yards and a touchdown.
NORTHERN ARIZONA WRANGLERS 49, TUCSON SUGAR SKULLS 30
Score by Quarters- 1 2 3 4 – T
Tucson 6 18 0 6 – 30
Northern Arizona 15 20 7 7 – 49
NAZ-Barker 3-yard run (Peterson kick)
TUC-Jones 1 yard run (Kick failed)
NAZ-Chiaokhiaho-Bowman 11-yard pass from Barker (Peterson kick)
NAZ-Watkins 9-yard run (Peterson kick)
TUC-Justus 43-yard Field Goal
NAZ-Watkins 56-yard kickoff return (Peterson kick)
TUC-Pedroza 12-yard pass from Neal (Kick blocked)
NAZ-Peterson 37-yard Field Goal
TUC-Peterson 45-yard pass from Neal (Justus kick)
NAZ-Peterson 42-yard Field Goal
NAZ-Barker 14-yard run (Peterson kick)
NAZ-Chiaokhaio-Bowman 3-yard pass from Barker (Peterson kick)
TUC-Jones 5-yard run (Pass failed)
IFL PLAYOFF RESULTS
Frisco 64, Iowa 39
Quad City 39, Massachusetts 38, OT
WRANGLERS 49, Tucson 30
Arizona 53, Duke City 14
Quad City at Frisco, TBA
WRANGLERS at Arizona, Saturday, 6:05 pm