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TOP > Game Report > Japan X Bowl Preview: IBM, star DE Brooks aim for elusive title against defending champion Fujitsu

Game Report

Japan X Bowl Preview: IBM, star DE Brooks aim for elusive title against defending champion Fujitsu


Players and coaches from the Japan X Bowl teams pose at a recent press conference in Tokyo. From left are IBM kicker Genki Odakura, head coach Shinzo Yamada, defensive end James Brooks and defensive back Shogo Nakatani, and Fujitsu wide receiver Junpei Yoshimoto and head coach Satoshi Fujita. (photo by IM Planning)



Japan X Bowl Preview: IBM, star DE Brooks aim for elusive title against defending champion Fujitsu

By Ken Marantz


While James Brooks has wrapped up his share of quarterbacks, blocked a number of field goals and batted down more than a pass or two, there is one thing he has yet to get his hands on—a league championship trophy.


Not at Flagstaff (Ariz.) High School, not at Arizona State University, and not yet during his time with the IBM BigBlue, a team still looking for a first X-League title of its own.


Brooks and his BigBlue teammates will aim to finally make it to the pinnacle when they take on the defending champion Fujitsu Frontiers in the Japan X Bowl on Dec. 18 at Tokyo Dome.


“I want one for this organization and the team,” Brooks said. “We have some older guys who have been playing with BigBlue before they were really a threat, so we just really want this one.”


Brooks noted that the only championship game that he has ever played in came in his first year in Japan in 2014, when IBM made it to the Japan X Bowl for the first time. The opponent that day was the same Fujitsu Frontiers, who rolled to a 44-10 victory for their first-ever league title.


This season, the Frontiers became the first team in league history to make it to the Japan X Bowl for a fifth consecutive year.


Neither team takes an undefeated record into Tokyo Dome, as Fujitsu lost a regular-season game to the Panasonic Impulse, while IBM dropped two close contests, to the Lixil Deers and Nojima Sagamihara Rise—and also had to go to overtime to beat the Elecom Kobe Finies. But both worked out the kinks and peaked in time for the playoffs to emerge as the last two survivors.


For the Frontiers to become the first team to win back-to-back championships since the Obic Seagulls won a record four in a row from 2010 to 2013, they will have to get past a vastly improved, and motivated, BigBlue squad from the one they faced three years ago.


“We’re looking at trying to make history,” IBM tight end John Stanton said. “It’s something special in the locker room. The season has been full of ups and downs for sure. After we lost our second game of the season, a lot of people counted us out, and the journey from there has become even more special because of that. We’re hungry.”


Fujitsu has already gotten a taste of what to expect, as the two teams faced each other twice last season. Fujitsu won both games, but by nothing near the margin of the 2014 Japan X Bowl victory. The Frontiers won the regular-season opener 29-24, then needed a last-second field goal to edge the BigBlue in the playoff semifinals 28-26.


IBM picked up its first major title of sorts when it won the spring Pearl Bowl tournament in 2016. But there is always a caveat that comes with that championship, as teams take different priorities and objectives into that tournament, with victory often taking a back seat to giving new players and back-ups valuable playing time.


But the experience of playing in a Japan X Bowl, combined with the Pearl Bowl title, have given the BigBlue a boost in confidence. The prevailing attitude is that even after just three years, both teams have changed.


“We’re definitely making strides and getting better, but so are they,” Brooks said. “It’s just different. Football is a game of inches, and it’s hard to say. Every year it’s a new team, regardless of if it’s the same players. It’s a new philosophy. You have to restart, you have to rebuild.”


Long-time Fujitsu followers can sympathize with IBM’s desperation to capture an elusive title. Before the win in 2014, the Frontiers lost five times in the championship game, including twice during Obic’s historic run. Now they are determined to join the handful of teams that have won consecutive titles.


“This year I think we have a little more of a ‘chip’ because you want to win back-to-back,” quarterback Colby Cameron said. “We won two out of three years since I got here. We wanted to win championships, and we did, but we’re not happy enough with just one in a row. We’re just trying to build off this momentum that we’ve had since I got here.”


Cameron’s memories of the first encounter in the Japan X Bowl are not all good. He did not play the second half after Brooks knocked him out of the game with a shoulder injury during a sack just before halftime. Backup QB Keiya Hiramoto finished up the victory.


Asked what image he conjures up hearing the name “James Brooks,” Cameron sidestepped the potential trap like he evades a pass-rusher.


“Good football player, good defensive end,” he said stoically. “That’s it. For me, he’s just a good player who helps his team a lot. We have so many talented guys out here now, it’s like everyone’s just good.”


While Cameron has long been established as an effective gun-slinging passer, he showed his versatility with his scrambling in the 7-0 semifinal victory over Obic. He even ran for the lone score of the game.


“I think Colby has always been elusive,” Brooks said. “I think he’d rather not be. But he’s a great athlete. He can run. He would rather play in the pocket, but he’s a great scrambler as well.


“That’s something I think you don’t have to worry about as much as preparing for Panasonic’s quarterback [Ben Anderson] or a Devin Gardner-type quarterback,” he added, referring to the Rise’s multipurpose QB. “But Colby can hurt you with his legs if you let him.”


Statistically, this has been an off-year for Cameron, the MVP of last year’s Japan X Bowl win over Obic. He completed 78 of 128 passes for just 958 yards, with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. While it seemed he and his receivers were not always in synch, the former Louisiana Tech star put it down it other factors.


“Teams do a good job [on defense],” Cameron said. “Maybe every quarterback, [IBM's] Kevin [Craft] will say the same, Gardner will say the same—defenses have gotten really good. They do a good job in the secondary, they communicate real well. That’s where I think it shows on the field, they got better. But we still have the same confidence and attitude that we’ve always had.”


To put pressure on Cameron, Brooks and first-year nose tackle Charles Tuaau will have to get past a beefy Fujitsu offensive line that includes All X-League selections guard Shun Mochizuki and tackle Yutaro Kobayashi.


“Great offensive line and a great offensive line coach,” Brooks said, referring to Keven Lightner. “We played Obic and Panasonic, they also have great offensive lines. The great teams in this league have great offensive lines, and that’s just something we have to prepare for and deal with. It’s always going to be a physical game, and we’re prepared for that for sure.”


The feeling is mutual regarding the IBM defense.


“They’re a good defense,” Cameron said. “And it looks like they’re starting to understand what they’re trying to do with their coach [Shinzo Yamada], he’s obviously a smart guy. For me, they don’t try to do too much, but what they do, they do it well. That’s what good defenses do.”


One unknown is whether Fujitsu will have running back Gino Gordon back in the lineup, and if so, how effective he will be. Gordon, the league rushing leader who also earned All X-League honors, is nursing a left ankle injury that kept him out of the both of Fujitsu’s playoff games. Kazuki Takaguchi, Keita Takanohashi and veteran Kosuke Kamiyama have carried the load in his absense.


“That’s where our team’s good, and we can always fill in the holes,” Cameron said of the Frontiers’ depth.


The IBM offense is led by the 31-year-old Craft, now in his sixth season in Japan. After setting league records for passing yardage in his first two seasons, his numbers have steadily tapered off—but that can be considered a good thing.


Part of the reason is that he willingly shares some of the quarterbacking duties with athletic Yuki Masamoto, depending on the situation. The other is that IBM has evolved away from a passing-oriented offense to a more balanced one with the emergence of running backs Tomokazu Sueyoshi and Ryo Takagi.


“It presents a different type of challenge for us from three years ago,” said Fujitsu cornerback Al-Rilwan. “Three years ago, we could pin our ears back and go get the quarterback, because we knew that for them to win, they needed to throw the ball. Now that they’re a more balanced team, we’ll have to both defend the pass and the run.


“They have good running backs, 21 [Takagi] and 10 [Sueyoshi], and they have good receivers as well. That’s why they’re in the X Bowl this year, because they’re a more complete team.”


It is no coincidence that Fujitsu’s run of consecutive appearances in the Japan X Bowl started the year Adeyami joined the Kawasaki-based team. An All X-League selection in all five seasons, Adeyami’s interception late in the fourth quarter helped preserve the semifinal win over Obic.


“Fujitsu has taken championship progression to another level,” Adeyami said. “I think we’re a team that understands that as we continue to win, the league is going to continue to change. We’re excited that we’re pushing the arms race and we’re pushing the pace of the league.”


Up front, the Fujitsu defense, which held opponents to an average of 11.7 points and 209.5 yards per game, is led by Trashaun Nixon, an All X-League pick in both of his two seasons here.


While Fujitsu was not as dominant as it was in its championship years, Adeyami said the team never lost faith of its ability to achieve its goal.


“When you go to the championship game four years in a row, you know what the championship formula is,” he said. “And when you’re not playing up to that standard, I don’t think it’s doubt, I think it’s more soul-searching to see how you get back to that championship level.”


Whatever happened during the season, it’s all ancient history now. The two teams are evenly matched, and the one that executes better will prevail.


“I think they’re hitting their stride right now, and so are we, and I think it’s going to be a really great game,” Brooks said. “It definitely won’t be like 2014.”


Instant replay to be used for 1st time


For the first time ever at an official football game in Japan, instant replay will be used in the Japan X Bowl to review disputed or important plays, the league has announced.


The Japan American Football Association revised its rules to include and regulate the use of instant replay, and the Japan X Bowl committee decided to implement the rules for this year’s game.


Under the system, a review official will have the power to review calls or penalties that have a direct effect on the outcome of the game. Also, each team’s coach is allowed to use a timeout to challenge a call. If the challenge is successful and the call changed, the team will be allowed a second challenge and not be charged with the timeout.


The rules specify which types of calls or penalties are subject to review. These include but are not limited to pass receptions and interceptions, fumbles, field goals and touchdowns. The review official can use replay to confirm penalties such as having too many men on the field, or to ensure the clock was properly started or stopped.





















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