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TOP > Game Report > Pearl Bowl Final Preview: IBM aims for 1st-ever title against spring-seasoned Lixil

Game Report

Pearl Bowl Final Preview: IBM aims for 1st-ever title against spring-seasoned Lixil


From left, IBM captain Shogo Nakatani and head coach Shinzo Yamada, and Lixil head coach Kiyoyuki Mori and captain Shuhei Suzuki at a press conference.




To capture the title in their first-ever trip to the final of the Pearl Bowl tournament, the IBM BigBlue will have to put the brakes on a Lixil Deers team that motored past two of the league’s top powerhouses to get there.

And that’s not to mention how the Deers particularly thrive in the spring. Or beat them last fall.

Lixil, appearing in the championship game for an 11th time, but first under its current title sponsor, will try to win an eighth title and first in three years when it faces IBM at Tokyo Dome on June 13. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.

“They’re hot right now,” IBM quarterback Kevin Craft says. “Football is kind of a streaky game in a way, where you can get hot and you play hard together. And Lixil, especially, gets hot really early….They won the Pearl Bowl a couple of years back, and they look like they’re playing full tilt all year round.”

A victory would give IBM, which made the Japan X Bowl for the first time in 2014 but lost to the Fujitsu Frontiers, a first-ever major title in the team’s 40-year history. It would also avenge a 33-25 loss to Lixil last fall that prevented IBM from having its first 5-0 record in divisional play.

That had come after IBM defeated Lixil on consecutive weekends in the 2014 fall season at Yokohama Stadium. A 38-10 victory by the BigBlue in the second stage set up a rematch in the final stage semifinals, which IBM won 69-54 in the highest-scoring game in league history. In the latter game, Craft threw for nine touchdowns while Lixil counterpart Shohei Kato had seven TD passes, along with five interceptions.

“They pretty much ruined our season last year,” IBM defensive end James Brooks says. “It’s tough in this league, you lose one game and it can be done for you. We respect Lixil, they’re a great team, they work very hard.

“We beat them twice two years ago, they beat us last year. So it’s going to be a great one. We’re looking forward to it. They’re probably looking forward to it.”

Lixil could hardly have been looking forward to the arduous path it had taken to the final. After beating the Bulls 36-7 in a sloppy opening victory in its preliminary round group, the Deers beat Fujitsu and the Obic Seagulls in consecutive games—with both games won with a touchdown in the final minute. Kato threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Naoki Maeda with 24 seconds left to give the Deers a 32-28 win over the Frontiers, then Maeda’s dramatic 74-yard punt return with :38 left sunk the Seagulls 21-16.

“We had successive tough games, but we managed to come out with wins and make it to the final,” Lixil head coach Kiyoyuki Mori says. “Still, the Deers did not win because we are strong, it’s because we are always thinking of how we can continue to get better up until the final whistle of the final game of the season.”

IBM, conversely, had a less daunting task in making the final. It only had one group game to play after the Metropolitan Police Dept. team withdrew from the tournament, and the BigBlue swept aside Tokyo Gas 49-6. In the semifinals, Brooks led a defense that shut out the Nojima Sagamihara Rise for three quarters before IBM settled for a 34-21 win.

“We are kind of lucky with the schedule,” IBM head coach Shinzo Yamada says. “But, Rise was a tough opponent. So I’m really happy to win and go to the next level. This is the first time BigBlue has made [the final], so I want to make history.”

IBM, looking to get back to the Japan X Bowl after missing out last season, has transitioned into a more-balanced offense that depends less on Craft’s arm and more on the power and speed of running backs Tomokazu Sueyoshi and Ryo Takagi. Sueyoshi broke free on a 47-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against Nojima that sealed IBM’s win, in which 200 of the 337 total yards came on the ground.

“I think the key is we got to mix it up, run and pass,” Yamada says. “We have to be diverse.”

Lixil has pretty much gone in the opposite direction, depending almost exclusively on the passing game behind national team quarterback Kato. In the wins over Fujitsu and Obic, passing accounted for 88% of the total yards.

Up front, Lixil’s beefy offensive line will need to neutralize Brooks, who kept the pressure on the Nojima backfield and helped IBM record a safety. If they can, Kato will get the time needed to make the most of dangerous receivers Maeda and Katsuya Nagakawa.

While the spring season is generally used to give rookies and bench players more game experience, that objective becomes overshadowed with a championship at stake. For example, it will intriguing to see how much Craft plays after sharing the quarterbacking duties this spring with rookie Yuki Masamoto.

“Obviously, we play to win,” Yamada says. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fans coming to the game. But at the same time, this is the spring, and we want to use as much players as possible to play in this game at Tokyo Dome.”

Craft says he relishes returning to Tokyo Dome, where a crowd of over 10,000 can be expected.

“It’s fun to play in the Tokyo Dome, any time you have a chance,” the former UCLA starter says. “What a good opportunity. It’s been fun. I think we have our work cut out for us.”

Brooks echoes that last sentiment, saying, “It’s not surprising to me that they win against Obic and they win against Fujitsu, because they’re a good team. There’s a group of teams in this league that you have to expect to play hard if you want to beat them. Lixil is one of those teams.”

—Ken Marantz for the X-League