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TOP > Game Report > Lions roar to historic win over Silver Star in wild-card playoff

Game Report

Lions roar to historic win over Silver Star in wild-card playoff


The Lions’ Hayato Tanizawa kicks a 35-yard field goal as time expires to beat the Silver Star. (photo by MI Planning)




Lions roar to historic win over Silver Star in wild-card playoff

By Ken Marantz



YOKOHAMA (Oct. 5)—After years of crashing against the wall to the X-League’s elite, the All Mitsubishi Lions finally broke through.


Hayato Tanizawa booted a 35-yard field goal with no time remaining and the Lions kicked off the Japan X Bowl Tournament with a shocking 20-17 upset of the Asahi Beer Silver Star in the wild-card playoff at Yokohama Stadium.


Kei Saito completed 16 of 26 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a score as the Lions, who topped the Battle 9 for the fifth straight year and second under the league’s revamped format, earned a quarterfinal clash against the top-seeded and unbeaten Panasonic Impulse on Nov. 11 in Osaka.


The victory avenged a 20-3 loss in their regular-season finale on Oct. 29 to the Silver Star, who slipped into the No. 8 spot and a playoff berth from Super 9 with that win on a rainy day on the same field.


The sun was shining both literally and figuratively on the Lions this time, as they put on their most solid performance in a season of uneven ones.


“We didn’t make any big changes to our game plan from last time to this time,” All Mitsubishi head coach Akira Hayashi said. “In contrast, the game plan didn’t so well last time. To recover from that, we prepared on Friday and Saturday, and that worked in our favor.”


Last season, the Lions were the only Battle 9 team to win an encounter against a Super 9 opponent, when they knocked off the Elecom Kobe Finies 17-14 in Week 4. But that season ended with a 20-6 loss in the wild-card playoff to the Asahi Soft Drink Challengers.


Asahi Beer, which pushed Panasonic to the wire before losing 21-14 in the quarterfinals in 2016, saw star quarterback Mason Mills return the the U.S. after the season and have been on a downward spiral since. The Silver Star had brought in three American players, but never resolved snags in the paperwork and none of them played a down.


“We don’t want to lose the game, but the Lions are getting stronger every year,” Asahi Beer’s first-year head coach Hayato Arima said. “They were in 10th place [No. 1 in Battle 9] for five years. And we’re going backward, or staying on the same line.”


Two mistakes by the Silver Star proved pivotal, opening the door just enough for the Lions to slip through and gain an advantge.


The first came late in the first quarter, after the Lions had gone ahead 7-3 on a spectacular 62-yard touchdown pass from Saito to Takato Kurihara, who had been a step behind the defense when he caught the rainbow in full stride.


The Silver Star, looking to recover from the blow, struck back with a long pass of their own, as rookie quarterback Takafumi Suzuki connected with a 52-yard pass to Hideki Kaneda to put the ball on the Lions 18.


But on the next play, safety Kazumasa Matsuda picked off a Suzuki pass inside the 10, returning it to the 31. The Lions proceeded to march downfield in a drive that went into the second quarter and ended with Tanizawa kicking a 34-yard field goal to put the Lions up 10-3.


Hayashi cited the interception as a game changer. “It seemed that the momentum of the game changed at that point,” he said. “[Matsuda] showed his hidden talent, and I think that had an effect on everyone.”


Asahi Beer managed to tie the game at 10-10 going into halftime when Suzuki engineered a 16-play, 86-yard drive that he capped with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Kazuya Togura with :21 left in the second quarter.


The other key play of the game came after the Lions tied the game themselves at 17-17 midway through the fourth quarter on Saito’s 6-yard touchdown run. On the ensuing kickoff, a mixup by the returners had the Silver Star starting their drive on their own 8. That would lead to a domino effect of good field positions for the Lions that would ultimately pay off in victory.


For the 25-year-old Saito, the come-from-behind victory marks one of the highlights of a career in which he was a superstar in college before joining the mid-level Lions and only supplanting starting QB Shoma Taniguchi this season.


Saito had made his name for being a member of the Kwansai Gakuin University Fighters’ teams that won four straight national collegiate championships, although each one lost in the Rice Bowl for the national title. He came close in his senior year, when the Fujitsu Frontiers needed to rally in the fourth quarter for a 33-24 win in the 2015 Rice Bowl.


“This kind of close game, a come-from-behind victory, I didn’t have in college,” Saito said. “We would always be leading and then finish it off. In the Rice Bowl, we weren’t able to rally. To be able to accomplish it here, it shows a measure of growth, and gives a boost to my confidence.”


Saito used a special play from that game against Silver Star, but in a more crucial situation and with more effect.


After the kickoff that left the Silver Star on the 8, the Lions held them to 3-and-out and got the ball back on the Silver Star 43 with 5:22 left. A holding penalty early on led to them facing a 4th-and-6.


As he did in the first quarter against Fujitsu, Saito lined up in the shotgun, took the snap in what appeared to be a fourth-down gamble, and proceeded to launch a quick punt that caught Asahi Beer unaware. The result: Asahi Beer was pinned down to its own 2.


“I’m good at that, so I wasn’t nervous,” Saito said of his punt. “I’ve been doing it since I was in college. I believed our defense would help us out. Because the defense came through, we had a good field position and created a good rhythm, and it produced a good result.”


The Silver Star got one first down, but eventually punted, and the Lions took over at midfield with 1:08 left. From there, Saito ran or passed as the Lions moved to the Silver Star 18, with an 11-yard screen pass to Makoto Hagihara putting All Mitsubishi into field goal range.


Three conservative run plays ran the clock down to :04, and there was nothing left when Tanizawa put his kick through the uprights, sending the Lions’ side of the stadium into a frenzy.


“Our offense couldn’t move the ball,” Arima said. “We had two series [in the red zone], where we have to be more aggressive. We had to punt twice and give them good field position on the 50-yard line, the 40-yard line.”


Asked if he was confident of victory going into the game, Saito it was “50-50.”


“The previous game, even though it was in the rain, we still lost pretty bad,” Saito said. “We beat them in the spring [a 21-17 win in the Pearl Bowl], but just seeing the last game, it was clear that they were the superior team. We had to figure out what we needed to do. Everyone came together as one, I think that led to the victory. Before the game, I wasn’t very confident, but we were determined to fight.”


Suzuki, who won the Silver Star QB job from Kazuma Ando, posted similar stats to Saito, finishing 18 of 26 for 181 yards. Togura was the leading receiver with eight receptions for 64 yards, and also kicked a 41-yard field goal on the opening drive of the game.


Takuya Yanagisawa, who gained 51 yards on 17 carries, threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Yuta Hayashi on a trick play that gave the Silver Star a 17-10 lead in the third quarter.


Not everything went the Lions’ way. In the third quarter, burly running back Yasuhiro Suzuki flubbed a direct snap, resulting in a lost fumble, and Tanizawa had a 26-yard field goal attempt blocked by Silver Star defensive lineman Yuta Sadakata. Suzuki, who had a 26-yard run to set up that field goal try, also fumbled on the play before Saito’s touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but luckily Kurihara fell on the ball.


Looking ahead to the daunting task ahead against Panasonic, Hayashi commented: “Of course, there is a big difference in strength. Conversely, that they have won all of their games could give them a blind spot. We don’t have much time. Anyway, if we don’t give everything, we can’t make a game of it.”

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