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TOP > Game Report > Pearl Bowl final: Brooks foils Lixil gamble as IBM bags 1st title in team’s 40-year history

Game Report

Pearl Bowl final: Brooks foils Lixil gamble as IBM bags 1st title in team’s 40-year history


IBM wide receiver Takashi Kurihara celebrates after catching a 3-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Kurihara was named the game MVP.



TOKYO (June 13)—Once James Brooks saw Shohei Kato look his way, he knew it was over. At 1.95 meters, the IBM defensive end knew that with the short field behind him, there was no way the Lixil Deers quarterback could throw the ball over him.


Brooks foiled one of the gustiest calls in Pearl Bowl history by batting down a 2-point conversion pass attempt with 48 seconds left, preserving the IBM BigBlue’s 21-20 victory over the Deers in a thrilling final at Tokyo Dome.


Kevin Craft threw for all three touchdowns before the crowd of 15,875 as the BigBlue captured a first-ever major title in their 40-year history. The BigBlue, who avenged a 33-25 loss from last fall to the Deers, had never before even been to the semifinals of the annual spring tournament.


Lixil, which had been aiming for its eighth Pearl Bowl title and first in three years, came as close as it could to completing a third come-from-behind victory over a league powerhouse. In all three games, the Deers scored a touchdown in the final minute—the first two times giving them consecutive victories over the Fujitsu Frontiers and Obic Seagulls; on Monday, it wasn’t enough.


“I never felt safe, not one second,” Brooks said. “When we had a lead, I kept telling our defense, let’s finish, don’t let up. These guys, they make a living on that, coming back when everyone thinks they’re done.”


Lixil, which twice tied the game with touchdowns, lived up to that reputation when Kato engineered a 10-play, 80-yard drive, capped by Shinichi Maekawa’s 5-yard touchdown run with :48 left on the clock to pull within one point.


But instead of sending in the kicking unit, Lixil head coach Kiyoyuki Mori opted to keep his offense on the field and decide the outcome of the game then and there by going for two. Injuries had decimated the unit’s line, and no doubt the ease with which Brooks had blocked a field goal in third quarter was still fresh in his mind.


“First of all, there was a risk of the try-for-point being blocked,” Mori said. “We had a number of member of the field goal kicking team with injuries, so our level was down. We had players in there with no experience, that made it riskier to get blocked. If we went for the point and went into overtime, we would have been at a disadvantage if we had to go for a long field goal.”


Mori added that his wide receivers were cramping up, and he didn’t like the odds of extending the game into overtime.


During the game, Kato, known for his quick release, had done a good job of generally avoiding the rampaging Brooks. But on the 2-point conversion, he turned to his right and, when he fired the ball, it plunked off the outstretched arms of Brooks, an all X-League selection in his first two years in Japan.


“I knew it would be a quick pass,” Brooks said. “I didn’t think they were going to run it. It’s really risky to run down there. Quick pass-that was all I was thinking. Get off the ball, get my hands up.


“Once I’d seen him look my way, I said, ‘Oh, it’s over.’ Because I’m going to jump, put my hands up and there’s no way he’s throwing the ball over me into the short field. When you’re in the red zone, or you have a two-point conversion, you’ve got 12 yards to work with. So I knew they can’t throw it deep. He’s not dropping back. So he turned my way, OK, hand’s up. As a D-lineman, you’re taught that.”


Said IBM head coach Shinzo Yamada: “Brooks made a great play. He was in the right place at the right time.”


It proved the decisive moment in a game that, notwithstanding the final score, could hardly have been more evenly matched. Both teams had 18 first downs, both missed a field goal and IBM outgained Lixil in total yards just 355 to 344.


The biggest difference was two turnovers on consecutive series by IBM, both of which were forced by big hits. The first was a  fumble by Craft early in the second half, which Lixil’s Toru Hirasawa recovered and led to a 33-yard touchdown run by Tomoya Okabe that tied the game at 14-14.


The second was Keisuke Waki’s interception on a deflection after Yu Nakajima took a crushing hit just as he was making a catch. That opportunity ended with Brooks leaping over the line to block Daisuke Aoki’s 40-yard field goal attempt.


IBM, which gambled but came up short on 4th-and-2 at the Lixil 47 on the opening drive of the game, scored on its next possession. Craft, who finished 24 of 33 for 222 yards, connected with Yutaro Taki on a 10-yard touchdown pass to cap a 12-play, 80-yard drive.


After IBM’s Toshiki Sato was wide left on a 39-yard field goal attempt, Lixil took the momentum and tied the game on Kato’s 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kengo Hasegawa with 1:04 left in the half.


That proved enough time for Craft & Co. to take the lead going into halftime. Craft hit Takashi Kurihara with 21- and 33-yard passes to put the ball at the Lixil 11 with :15 left. On 3rd-and-6 and :06 on the clock and no timeouts, Craft went for broke and it paid off with 7-yard touchdown pass to John Stanton.


“If he wouldn’t have caught it, there would have been two seconds,” Craft said. “We were so close, that play’s going to happen so fast, you either get an incompletion, and there’s one second, or you get a touchdown.”


After Lixil tied the game on Okabe’s run, IBM went ahead for the third time with a drive that was started by rookie quarterback Yuki Masamoto and finished by Craft.


Among the main objectives of the spring tournament is to give the rookies and bench players some game experience, and IBM wanted to be sure to give Masamoto some reps, showing their confidence in him even with a title at stake.


But after getting down to the Lixil 23, Craft was sent back out. He completed a 20-yard pass to Stanton, then found Kurihara alone in the corner of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown and a 21-14 lead.


Why the switch? “Because of the red zone,” Craft explained. “Because [Masamoto] didn’t have the reps in practice, so he didn’t know the game plan. He did a great job getting us down there.”


Kurihara, who caught six passes for 90 yards and returned three kicks for 64 yards, was named the game’s MVP.


Kato completed 19 of 31 passes for 207 yards, with Naoki Maeda making five catches for 73 yards. Okabe rushed for  88 yards on 10 carries. The Lixil defense recorded three sacks.


For Craft, the victory bodes well for the upcoming fall season, his fifth in Japan. The BigBlue made the Japan X Bowl for the first time in 2014, but lost to Fujitsu and failed to return last season.


“When I came on BigBlue, we had a long way to go,” Craft said. “We’ve come so far, compared to what we were. I think that our team has just continued to improve every single year that I’ve been here.”


“This is great, obviously, to get a win, to get a championship,” Yamada said. “But obviously, we need to fix a lot of things to prepare for the fall season.”


—Ken Marantz for the X-League