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TOP > Game Report > Playoff preview: Rematch between Fujitsu, IBM a whole new ball game

Game Report

Playoff preview: Rematch between Fujitsu, IBM a whole new ball game


Fujitsu defensive end Trashaun Nixon (16) has been a key member of a defense that held opponents to a league-low 9.0 points per game in the regular season. (photo by MI Planning)





It was three months ago on a rainy Sunday that the Fujitsu Frontiers opened the season by beating the IBM BigBlue. Fujitsu went on to finish unbeaten in the regular season, while IBM went 3-3, although their three losses were by a combined 10 points.


But when it comes to their rematch in the semifinals of the Japan X Bowl tournament on Sunday at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki, that’s all ancient history.


“I feel like actually they’re a completely different team,” Fujitsu running back Gino Gordon says. “And I feel like we’re a different team as well. I feel like we’ve started getting into a rhythm a little bit. Right now, both of us kind of have our identities set and now it’s going to be a completely different game, and I feel like it’s going to be a good game. Very competitive.”


The Frontiers, aiming to regain the league title they won in 2014, routed the Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers 42-6 in the playoff quarterfinals, while IBM avenged one of its defeats by handily knocking off the Lixil Deers 37-16.


The other semifinal will pit the defending champion Panasonic Impulse against the Obic Seagulls at Osaka’s Yanmar Stadium. Obic finished the season undefeated, while Panasonic’s lone loss came at the hands of Fujitsu.


The semifinal winners will meet in the Japan X Bowl on Dec. 12 at Tokyo Dome.


In their first meeting, Fujitsu and IBM combined for six of the game’s eight turnovers in a sloppy first half that ended with the Frontiers leading 7-6. The game opened up after the break and the Frontiers took a 19-point lead with less than five minutes left before winning 29-24.


One big difference Sunday will be that the IBM lineup will include quarterback Kevin Craft, who missed the opener due to a shoulder injury suffered in the spring, when the BigBlue won the Pearl Bowl tournament for their first major title.


Since returning, Craft has seen the bulk of action, but IBM has also used rookie backup Yuki Masamoto. While Craft has a reputation as a passer and rookie backup Yuki Masamoto has made a name for himself with his running ability—he broke free for a 62-yard touchdown run against Lixil—the Fujitsu defense need not prepare separate schemes to counter them, says defensive back Al Rilwan Adeyami.


“They’re both one quarterback,” Adeyami says. “Because you look at Craft and you look at him take off, and it looks like a gazelle running out there. He’s got really long strides. He can get over and run the football as well. And then their young guy [Masamoto], he does a really good job of running the football. So preparing for one is preparing for both.”


No conversation about stopping the IBM offense can fail to mention their backfield duo of powerful Tomokazu Sueyoshi and quick Ryo Takagi. IBM led the league in total yards during the regular season with 2,510, but was one of only two teams (Tokyo Gas was the other) to have over 1,000 yards rushing.


“I think that the real big threat, instead of preparing for a mobile quarterback, is preparing for their two running backs, No. 10 [Sueyoshi] and No. 21 [Takagi], who are both very good backs,” Adeyami says.


“We can live with a quarterback getting a first down here and there, but we can’t live with their running backs consistently driving the ball, and consistently on 3rd-and-5 getting the first down. That’ll kill you.”


On offense, Fujitsu quarterback Colby Cameron will have to deal with a defense led up front by tackle Rykeem Yates and end James Brooks. Yates particularly stood out in the win over Lixil. IBM ranked 16th in yards allowed (313.5 per game) and tied for 15th in points allowed (23.2), but those numbers are somewhat skewed by the wild 52-48 loss to the Deers in the regular season.


“I have the utmost confidence in our offense,” Gordon says. “We’re a team that can do both, we can run the ball and eat up clock if we want to, or we can go down the field passing the ball. You’ve seen Colby work, so it’s no surprise that that’s something we can do as well.


“At the end of the day, we just have to find out what they give us. You never really know. Sometimes they play coverage, sometimes they might try to load the box. It just depends on what they want to stop, and then we decide from there what’s the best move to make.”


As with any big game, the key will be turnovers. When Fujitsu routed IBM in the 2015 Japan X Bowl for its first-ever championship, the Frontiers scored four touchdowns off five turnovers in a 44-10 victory.


“It’s the same key every game—no turnovers,” says Gordon, who ran for four touchdowns in the 2015 title game. “If you have no turnovers, you have a pretty good chance of winning the game. Our defense does a good job of getting turnovers on the opposite end. This is something that my coaches in college said, that if you win the turnover battle, it will be very likely that you’ll be able to win the game.”


While Fujitsu’s offense was less prolific than in recent years, the defense has put up a near-impenetrable wall, allowing a league-low 9.0 points per game and shutting out two opponents. The impact players has been defensive end/linebacker Trashaun Nixon, who has deceptive speed at 186 cms and 106 kgs that has allowed him to catch the quickest running backs and scrambling quarterbacks.


Nowhere was his presence felt more than in Fujitsu’s 20-13 victory over Panasonic, which gave the Frontiers a measure of revenge for a 24-21 loss in last year’s Japan X Bowl. With the score tied at 13-13 in the fourth quarter, Nixon forced quarterback Tetsuo Takata to fumble, then picked up the ball himself and raced 41 yards for the winning touchdown with just over three minutes left.


“We all call him the Von Miller of the X-League,” Adeyami says of Nixon, referring to the Denver Broncos star and MVP of last season’s Super Bowl. “He does a great job for our defense, whether it’s covering, whether it’s tackling, whether it’s rushing the QB. He’s a very, very versatile player.”


Adeyami realizes that while the quest for revenge may serve as  motivation for IBM, in the end its all about both teams just concentrating on getting to the championship.


“We’re just focused on winning one game,” he says. “They went to the Pearl Bowl last [spring] and won that, and I think that was great for their organization in terms of confidence. Now they’re back in the final four and I think they’re looking to take the next step, to be X Bowl champions.”


—Ken Marantz for the X-League