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TOP > What’s New > Final stage preview: Are more high-scoring shootouts in store?

What’s New

Final stage preview: Are more high-scoring shootouts in store?


The ad campaign a number of years back for a U.S. fast food joint asked, “Where’s the beef?” After the completion of the X-League’s second stage, fans might have been asking, “Where’s the defense?”


The four teams that advanced to the final stage combined for 347 points over eight games in the second stage, when the competition is expected to be tougher and the games closer. The average score in the last round of games, in which each division champion was paired with a runnerup, was a hefty 45-29.


The question now is, will this trend continue in the final stage on Dec. 1, when the three-time defending champion Obic Seagulls (7-0) face the Kajima Deers (5-2) at Yokohama Stadium and the Fujitsu Frontiers (7-0) travel to Osaka to take on the Panasonic Impulse (6-1) at Kincho Stadium?


While the offenses have been putting the scoreboard operators into overdrive, one coach says that there has been nothing particularly different about this season.


“It’s not like we’re aiming for high-scoring games, but if the opponent scores points, we have to score more to win, it’s that simple,” Kajima Deers head coach Kiyoyuki Mori. “Sometimes that just leads to a high-scoring game.


“If the game evolves into one with a lot of points, no one goes out of their way to use up time to not score.”


Mori acknowledged that part of the offensive explosion can be attributed to the 15-minute quarters used in the second stage — three minutes longer than in divisional play — and the presence of the high-powered IBM BigBlue and their quarterback Kevin Craft.


“Anyway, it doesn’t matter how the game progresses, as long as you win,” Mori says. “You try to score one more point [than the opponent], you make use of every chance to score a touchdown, you use the time effectively, you don’t press too hard, you keep the risk to a minimum.


“This season, it happened often that one failure to score cost a team a game. I don’t think there were any big changes in systems or any new player came in and caused a big burst in scoring.”


Kajima enters the final four as the only team with two losses, having fallen to Fujitsu in the East Division finale and then to IBM in the second stage. The latter was a 56-35 pasting and marked the Deers’ first-ever loss to the BigBlue. But the Deers rebounded to hand Panasonic its only loss this season, overcoming three first-half interceptions and rallying to a 47-45 victory.


“We gained confidence from the perspective that we won’t panic if we get into that type of game,” Mori says. “It’s not that we suddenly became stronger and beat Panasonic. Just like we weren’t weaker because we lost to IBM. We just made the necessary adjustments after the loss.”


Kajima, which won the spring Pearl Bowl tournament, will be trying to extend its final season under its current name. Kajima Corp. announced earlier this year it will end its support of the Deers, and the team will likely play next season under the name of a new sponsor.


Staying alive means beating an Obic team that defeated them in each of the past three years, most recently a 27-24 win in last year’s Japan X Bowl.


“This year from the start, we formed a plan and prepared with the aim of beating Obic,” Mori says. “We won’t know until we play them if we have become better. But every year, we think that this is our year. That’s how we will go into this game.”


While Obic remains undefeated, it has done so without the dominance it has shown in past years. The Seagulls barely squeaked out a 42-41 win over IBM in the Central Division, and posted two lackluster wins before capping the second stage with a 44-17 victory over the Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers.


Speedy wide receiver Noriaki Kinoshita has been spectacular, but quarterbacks Shun Sugawara and Manabu Tatsumura have been a bit inconsistent. The Seagulls’ 259 points scored is the lowest of the four semifinalists.


Mori, however, says the Seagulls can never be underestimated. Although they might have had lapses in concentration, they still manage to find ways to win.


“There hasn’t been any big change in their main players and their style of play hasn’t changed,” he says. “They had games where they lost their focus and struggled, but in the end, they still won. They might have had closer scores than in past years, but it’s not because they became weaker. To continue winning for so long, it’s hard to stay motivated and focused.”


Fujitsu has all the motivation its needs in the form of being two wins away from a first-ever league title. The Frontiers have been to the championship game four times and lost all four, most recently in 2011.


The Frontiers feature an explosive offense centered on quarterback Keiya Hiramoto and three running backs, Yusuke Shinshi, Gino Gordon and Keita Takanohashi, who ensure a fresh set of legs in the backfield.


Fujitsu and Panasonic last met in the 2007 Japan X Bowl, when the Impulse still used the corporate name Matsushita Denko. The Impulse won that game 33-13 for the second of three consecutive titles.


The Impulse made the final four for the first time in three years behind rejuvenated quarterback Tetsuo Takata, who has returned from injury to lead Panasonic to a league-high 380 total points.


The final stage winners will meet in the Japan X Bowl on Dec. 16 at Tokyo Dome.


— Ken Marantz for the X-League