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TOP > Game Report > Maeda’s late punt return stuns Seagulls, lifts Deers into Pearl Bowl final

Game Report

Maeda’s late punt return stuns Seagulls, lifts Deers into Pearl Bowl final


Lixil’s Naoki Maeda returns a punt for the winning touchdown against Obic.




KAWASAKI (May 29)—In 30-plus years of coaching, Kiyoyuki Mori said he had never seen anything like it. The Obic Seagulls sure wished they hadn’t.


Naoki Maeda returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown with 38 seconds left, giving the Lixil Deers a stunning 21-16 victory over the Seagulls in the semifinals of the Pearl Bowl tournament at Fujitsu Kawasaki Stadium.


Shohei Kato threw two touchdown passes in the second half to Tatsuya Nagakawa for the Deers, who pulled off successive come-from-behind victories over powerhouses Fujitsu Frontiers and Obic to advance to the final of the annual spring tournament for Kanto region teams for a record 11th time.


“We lost to Fujitsu last year [in the fall], and before that we lost big to Obic, so we knew our opponents were strong,” Maeda said. “We were determined that right up to the end, we would never give up. It’s great that we fought to the end.”


In the championship game on June 13 at Tokyo Dome, the Deers will aim for a ninth title and first since 2013 when they face the IBM BigBlue, who earned a place in the final for the first time in their history with a 34-21 win over the Nojima Sagahimara Rise in the second semifinal.


Obic, which had nearly twice as much time of possession (31:45 to 16:15) and outgained the Deers in total yards 363 to 212, took a 16-14 lead on Shun Sugawara’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Ryoma Hagiyama with 2:30 left in the game. A missed extra point left the door open for the Deers to win with a field goal.


The Seagulls seemed to clinch the game when they stopped the Deers on the ensuing drive, with Kevin Jackson coming up with a crucial sack. But they were unable to run out the clock, and were forced to punt from midfield with less than a minute left.


Takatoshi Hoshino tried to angle his punt to the sideline, but Maeda caught the line drive at full speed, found a seam and went untouched to the end zone, thrilling the Deers’ fans among the crowd of 3,605.


“The returners practice that if you can catch the ball and make a return—no matter where it is, even in front of the end zone, no matter how much time there is—if you have a chance, go for it,” Lixil head coach Mori said. “Everyone in particular works on punts that are difficult to catch. Not just this year, we’ve always done that in practice.


“Really, this only happens sometimes. Even for me, in my 30-plus years, I’ve never seen a game come out that way.”


Maeda, who has long been among the league’s top kick returners, said he made the decision to go for it the moment the ball was kicked.


“There was no other way to win. I just went for it and it worked perfectly,” he said. “I passed the defenders coming the other way and I knew if I caught it directly, I could do it.”


The fact that Obic had to punt hinged on one play, according to Seagulls offensive coordinator Daniel Lynds.


“We kept them off the field, kept our defense to a low play count, which is kind of what we wanted to do,” Lynds said. “It came down to a 2nd-and-1 with two minutes left, and we got tackled in the backfield. Which gave us a 3rd-and-3, which led to a 4th-and-1. Which then led to a punt return. As a offensive coach, we’ve to make a first down on that 2nd-and-1.”


The defenses dominated earlier in the game, with Takeshi Nagao’s 22-yard field goal in the second quarter for Obic the lone score of the first half. Nagao had earlier missed a 21-yard chip shot.


Newcomer Jerry Neuheisel, taking over for Sugawara to start the second half, led Obic to the first touchdown of the game on his first series. He capped a nine-play, 83-yard drive with a perfect rainbow to rookie wide receiver Taro Kojima for a 31-yard touchdown pass.


“I think last [game] was a lot about getting the cobwebs out,” Neuheisel said of his first outing, in which he threw for one touchdown and two interceptions in a 43-3 win over the All Mitsubishi Lions. “Going into today, I felt a lot more comfortable. I’ve been working a lot at practice of being able to know exactly where I’m going and learning more Japanese so we can communicate better.”


Lixil’s Kato, who struggled in the first half, responded with his first scoring drive, which he finished with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Nagakawa to cut the Obic lead to 10-7.


On Obic’s next possession, Neuheisel marched the Seagulls into Lixil territory on a drive that went into the fourth quarter. But going for it on 4th-and-3 at the Lixil 33, Neuheisel was knocked out of bounds on a scramble one yard short of the first down.


The Deers then took the lead for the first time at 14-10 when Kato and Nagakawa connected on a 6-yard touchdown pass to cap a 10-play, 69-yard drive.


“The third quarter, going into the fourth quarter, we were rolling on them, and I think I got a little bit of an unfavorable spot on the dive going for the first down,” said Neuheisel, who completed 9 of 12 passes for 120 yards.


“But those things happen. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way.  Give all the credit in the world to Lixil, but we look forward to playing them in Week 3,” he added, referring to the scheduled clash between the two teams in the fall season.


When Obic got the ball back with 4:39 left and 65 yards to go, the Seagulls opted to put Sugawara back in. Lynds explained that that was not a lack of confidence in Neuheisel, who had been a backup QB at UCLA.


“It’s the amount of practice time that Jerry’s been here, hasn’t given him enough time in the two-minute drill,” Lynds said. “He just hasn’t had the reps that Sugawara’s had. And it’s not just him. As an offense, we haven’t practiced that more than two times. So I’m counting on years of experience between Sugawara and those receivers.”


Sugawara, the QB who led Obic to an unprecedented four straight league titles from 2010-13, stepped up and completed five straight passes, including a masterful 38-yarder to Noriaki Kinoshita. He hit Hagiyama over the middle for the go-ahead score, and finished the day 21 of 25 for 206 yards. Hagiyama had 7 catches for 93 yards.


Kato, who threw the winning touchdown pass with :17 to go to beat Fujitsu 32-28 on May 16, completed 15 of 30 passes for 183 yards with one interception.


“Today, the defense and kick [return] team led us to the victory,” Kato said. “On offense, we still have some things to work on. Looking at how we played today’s game, it won’t work in the fall against teams like Panasonic. We have to reflect on that, and have it work for us in the next game at Tokyo Dome.”


—Ken Marantz for the X-League