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TOP > What’s New > Impulse hang on in Rice Bowl thriller for 1st national title since 2008

What’s New

Impulse hang on in Rice Bowl thriller for 1st national title since 2008


Panasonic wide receiver Taiji Koyama races to end zone for the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.




TOKYO (Jan. 3)—In a final twist to a classic thriller, the X-League team took a page from the collegians’ playbook and used a bit of trickery to pull off a hard-fought victory.


Taiji Koyama took a downfield lateral and finished up a 55-yard touchdown reception with 1:31 left, and the Panasonic Impulse held on to defeat Ritsumeikan University 22-19 at Tokyo Dome in a pulsating Rice Bowl to capture their first national title since 2008.


Ritsumeikan, which went ahead for the first time on the previous drive on Yuto Nishiyama’s 54-yard touchdown pass to Seiya Inokuma, had a chance to tie the game and earn a share of the title, but Yuki Tochio missed a 49-yard field goal with :02 remaining.


“It was crazier than we all expected, but we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Panasonic defensive end David Motu said. “We always kept battling. We always believed in each other from day one.”


With the win before 31,345 in the all-Kansai clash, X-League teams have now won the Rice Bowl seven times in a row and 11 of the last 12. Since the game has pitted the corporate and collegian champions for the national title starting in 1984, the corporate teams are now 21-12.


Both teams were appearing in the Rice Bowl for the first time since 2009, which was also the last time the collegians won, with Ritsumeikan posting a 17-13 win over the Impulse. By avenging that loss, Panasonic won the title for the first time since 2008 and fourth time overall.


Panasonic got three first-half field goals from Eita Saeki, including a Rice Bowl record-tying 49-yarder, and a 1-yard touchdown run by game MVP Shun Yokota to build a 15-3 lead midway through the third quarter.


The Panthers got back into the game when sophomore running back Nanato Nishimura scored on a 13-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Tochio then booted a 32-yard field goal to cut the Impulse’s lead to 15-12 with 8:17 left in the game.


Things really got interesting at that point, as Ritsumeikan, which barely missed recovering an onside kick earlier in the game, inadvertently got the ball back on the ensuing kickoff. The high kick landed around the 15-yard line and bounced laterally right through the legs of upback Atsushi Tsuji, and the Panthers’ Kyohei Okuno hustled to make the recovery at the Impulse 12.


But Ritsumeikan made little forward progress and then came away with nothing when Tochio was wide left on a 28-yard field goal attempt. Still, all was not lost when the defense held and Ritsumeikan got the ball back with 5:04 left on its own 44.


To neutralize the X-League’s size advantage, the collegiate teams inevitably resort to an assortment of trick plays, and Ritsumeikan was no exception on this day. But other than a play-action fake to Nishimura, Ritsumeikan’s go-ahead touchdown on the second play of the drive was a straightforward and well-thrown bomb from Nishiyama to Inokuma, who caught it in full stride and outraced the secondary into the end zone for a 19-15 lead.


“Because we had the special plays, that set up the regular plays to work,” said sophomore Nishiyama, who completed 12 of 22 passes for 207 yards. “They were playing man-to-man, and we used the fake to Nishimura, which froze the defensive line. Inokuma made the catch because of his legs.”


Panasonic cornerback Emory Polley said the Panthers always kept the Impulse defense guessing.


“We knew coming into the game they were going to do a lot of trick plays,” Polley said. “We tried to game plan for it, but when it happens out there so fast, you have to make adjustments on the fly. We tried out best to keep it in front of us.”


While their backs were suddenly against the wall, the Impulse were not in unfamiliar territory. To advance to the Rice Bowl, they got a touchdown with 1:11 left in the Japan X Bowl to stun the defending champion Fujitsu Frontiers 24-21.


The winning score in that game came on a 15-yard touchdown pass from veteran quarterback Tetsuo Takata to Koyama, and those two would hook up in a similar situation in the Rice Bowl, but through an intermediary.


“It was a tough situation, but we experienced a tough situation in the Japan X Bowl, and that gave us a mental boost,” said Takata, one of 13 Ritsumeikan alumni on the Impulse roster.


“I was thinking that we still had time,” Panasonic head coach Nobuyoshi Araki said. “My only thought was how we could regain the lead.”


Starting from the 35 with 4:12 left, Panasonic were facing 4th-and-4 when Takata hit Koyama over the middle for 14 yards to move into Ritsumeikan territory. But a 3-yard loss on a run and an intentional grounding penalty moved the Impulse back across the midfield stripe.


On 4th-and-a very long 20 at their own 45, Takata found Koji Honda close to first-down territory. Honda, cutting inward from the left sideline, suddenly flipped the ball to Koyama streaking in from the opposite direction. That caught the Panthers defenders completely off guard, and there was no catching Koyama as he raced into the end zone.


Ritsumeikan, however, was down but not out. With no timeouts, 1:26 on the clock and the ball on their own 19, they set out to pull off a miracle. It was impressive how close they came.


Nishiyama completed three straight passes for 35 yards. After a spike to stop the clock and two incomplete passes set up a 4th-and-10, he connected with Inokuma for 15 yards to keep the drive alive. A 14-yard completion to Yoshihito Omi on third down put the ball on the Impulse 17, well within Tochio’s range.


But after a spike, Nishiyama was flagged for a questionable intentional grounding, which not only pushed the Panthers back to the 32, but also meant a 10-second runoff from the clock. Tochio’s kick went wide right, sending the blue-shirted Impulse faithful into a frenzy as the Panthers dropped to the ground in dismay.


“It was hard,” Motu said of trying to stop Ritsumeikan’s final drive. “We didn’t know what they were going to do. We didn’t know who to stop. First we tried to stop 86 [Inokuma], because he was just killing us, he is so fast. We stop him, you leave 32 [Nishimura] open, so what do we do? We just rallied round.”


Ironically, Ritsumeikan earned its berth in the Rice Bowl when Waseda University’s kicker missed a 53-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the Koshien Bowl, allowing the Panthers to escape with a 28-27 victory in the collegiate championship.


The hero of that game was Nishimura, whose combination of speed and power proved a tough challenge for the Impulse. He rushed for 97 yards on 25 carries.


“I didn’t expect him to be that fast,” Motu said. “He was powerful, too. He played his heart out; they all did.”


Panasonic, while outgained in total yards 473 to 419, controlled the ball with a running game boosted by the return of swift Benjamin Dupree, who had missed the last two games due to a lower body injury.


“I haven’t played in a game in about a month and a half. It took me a little bit to get back into the flow,” said Dupree, who gained 108 yards on 18 carries.


Dupree was at his jitterbugging best on Panasonic’s opening drive of the second half, which ended with Yokota’s 1-yard touchdown run. After a mistimed snap to noone resulted in a 14-yard loss, Dupree gained it back and then some with a 25-yard scamper. He then gained 20 yards after being stopped at the line, then cutting across the field before racing down to the 1.


“We were trying to get the run going and do some things off of the run game,” center Edmond Davis said. “It just didn’t work out in our favor today, but we kept running. When it mattered, we were able to run the ball.”


It was a credit to Ritsumeikan’s defense that while Panasonic moved into the red zone several times in the first half, they had to settle for Saeki field goals each time. His 49-yarder, which gave the Impulse a 9-3 lead in the second quarter, equaled the Rice Bowl record set by Impulse kicker Masahiro Ota in the 2008 victory over Kwansei Gakuin.


Panasonic was threatening to extend its lead before halftime when defensive back Toshiki Kimura picked off a Takata pass at the 6-yard line—the first and only interception thrown this season by Takata, who had led Ritsumeikan to victory in the 2004 Rice Bowl.


The Panthers added a second interception in the fourth quarter when Impulse wide receiver Tatsuya Tonka’s pass on an end-around was picked off by defensive back Ryota Okuda.


While the Ritsumeikan offense had no turnovers, it was not without its share of miscues. In the first quarter, the Panthers had 3rd-and-goal at the 3 when Nishimura had the ball on a sweep right when he flipped it to Koki Narita wide open in the end zone—but overthrew him. The Panthers had to settle for a 19-yard Tochio field goal.


The game likely marked the end of the career of one of the X-League’s most respected and stalwart players, Panasonic’s 46-year-old defensive tackle Yasuo Wakisaka, who appropriately had a key play. On a 4th-down gamble at the Impulse 2 in the second quarter, Wakisaka wrapped up Nishimura for no gain.


“I knew they would take it to us, but I didn’t think it would be like this,” Wakisaka said in a nod to the collegians’ fighting spirit.


The victory completed a turnaround for Panasonic, which failed to make the playoffs last season and lost its hold on the West Division title.


“We would have liked to have played a more solid game, but our players never gave up right up to the end,” Panasonic head coach Nobuyoshi Araki said.


—Ken Marantz for the X-League


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