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TOP > Game Report > Playoff preview: IBM, Panasonic renew acquaintances with Japan X Bowl spot on line

Game Report

Playoff preview: IBM, Panasonic renew acquaintances with Japan X Bowl spot on line


IBM quarterback Kevin Craft will be aiming to lead the BigBlue into the Japan X Bowl for the second time since coming to Japan in 2012 when they face the Panasonic Impulse in the semifinals on Sunday in Osaka. (photo by MI Planning)





Playoff preview: IBM, Panasonic renew acquaintances with Japan X Bowl spot on line

By Ken Marantz


In this era of increased opportunities for the league’s top teams to square off at some time during the season, it’s quite rare that the paths of two somehow failed to cross for as long as four years.


But the Panasonic Impulse and IBM BigBlue will get reacquainted in a hurry on Sunday, when they clash in the semifinals of the Japan X Bowl tournament at Osaka’s Kincho Stadium.


IBM quarterback Kevin Craft remembers well the most recent encounter with the Impulse—a 55-24 shellacking in the second stage of the 2013 season, which followed a 34-17 loss in the same stage the previous year. Both losses prevented IBM from advancing to the final four.


“We played them the first two years I was here, and they worked us over pretty good,” said Craft, who came to Japan in 2012. “But we’ve changed a lot. I haven’t really watched them at all, gone against them or anything. So it’s going to be an interesting match-up, just to see what we can do offensively. We know they’re good.”


Conversely, the other semifinal pairs two teams—the defending champion Fujitsu Frontiers and the Obic Seagulls—who know each other quite well. Their clash at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki will be their third in less than a year, as Fujitsu topped Obic in last year’s Japan X Bowl, then again in overtime in their regular-season finale on Oct. 29.


Panasonic was the lone team to get through the regular-season unscathed, vanquishing all six opponents, which included both Fujitsu and Obic, before defeating the All Mitsubishi Lions 20-3 in a quarterfinal that they surprisingly did not dominate.


IBM finished 4-2, having lost a 49-42 shootout with the Nojima Sagamihara Rise and a 29-28 thriller to the Lixil Deers. The BigBlue avenged the latter loss in the quarterfinals by ousting the Deers 51-31 in one of Craft’s best game in recent years, as he threw three of his four touchdown passes in the second half to help IBM overturn a 21-20 halftime deficit.


“He’s very confident,” IBM head coach Shinzo Yamada said of Craft. “That was his best game, but he has that potential every time. We’ve been practicing together and he’s kind of like that against our defense. I knew he could do that and I think he played well.


“There were times that we got unlucky, but he stuck with the game plan and didn’t panic, and at the same time, he didn’t play it safe. He played aggressively. I think that’s why he was successful.”


Craft finished second in the league in the regular season with 1,199 passing yards, completing 95 of 148 passes with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Against Lixil, he threw for 272 yards, but chalked up the victory over Lixil to a solid team effort.


“Quarterback play, you’re going to pick apart your game,” he said. “Nobody can play a perfect game, basically. Your mistakes show. So, just kind of trying to manage the game a little bit. There was a couple of times I had to make a play, but other than that, I was just kind of managing it.


“Our running game was solid, especially in the second half,” he continued, a nod to a rushing attack that included Tomozaku Sueyoshi’s 80-yard touchdown run to start the third quarter. “Our running game was the difference, in my opinion. We played good in all phases, receivers, running backs, the O-line, special teams. It was a great team win.”


To be as successful against Panasonic, IBM is going to have to find a way to contain their quarterback, multi-purpose threat Ben Anderson, who returned to Japan this season after a stint with the Rise in 2015. This will be the BigBlue’s first time to face him, as they did not play the Rise that season.


Anderson, out of the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, is as adept at taking off with the ball as throwing it. He finished the regular season with more rushing touchdowns (7) as passing (6), and gained 513 yards on 65 carries, second in the league only to Fujitsu running back Gino Gordon. He also completed 45 of 75 for 610 yards.


IBM got a glimpse of a similar player in the Rise’s gifted Devin Gardner, but Yamada notes there are differences between the two. Most notable is the vast discrepancy in interceptions—Gardner had seven (not to mention six in a quarterfinal loss to Obic); Anderson had zero.


“One of things I’m impressed with him is that [he had] no interceptions for the season, that is amazing,” Yamada said. “When I look at the film, he is playing it very safe, not taking risks and obviously he uses his weapons. The thing is, he is a similar type with Devin in terms of running, but in terms of making decisions, throwing and everything, is completely different.”


The Panasonic offense is far from a one-man show. Anderson is well complimented by powerful running back Shun Yokota and a dependable corps of receivers led by Tatsuya Tonka, which operate behind a powerful line anchored by two-time All X-League center Edmond Davis.


“I’m impressed with their offensive line, they’re very good,” Yamada said. “They can push, and running-wise, they’re tough to beat. They control the ball and then Benjamin, no interceptions, that’s how you win the game.”


After struggling to hold down top teams during the regular season, the IBM defense, led by All X-League defensive end James Brooks, stepped up against Lixil, which scored two of its touchdowns on returns of a kickoff and an interception.


The IBM offensive line will have to contend with Panasonic’s formidable defensive front, which already featured David Motu and Carlton Jones before adding 122-kilogram Aaron Jason Ahnor, a product of Louisville University, and 101-kilogram Kelly Shoichi Igwe.


Like Motu, who played at Nihon University, Ahnor does not count against the quota of foreign players because he attended Kadena High School in Okinawa. Igwe played both high school and college ball in Japan. That leaves an opening for the Impulse to also field defensive back Emory Polley.


“They have a really good defensive line,” Yamada said. “We need to figure out some way to stop their [pass rushing]. If they continously give pressure to Kevin, that’s going to be trouble. We need to be little bit creative on that side. We’ve looked at a lot of film and I think I feel comfortable, and Kevin feels comfortable about our game plan going into this game.”


One aspect that the BigBlue will have going for them is that, with the two-week break, they expect to have everyone healthy and ready to go, following a season in which the tough schedule took its toll.


“We’ve been really banged up,” Craft said. “We played two real physical games early on against the Seagulls and Rise, and we’re getting physical, getting after it, and we had a lot of injuries in the [first] Lixil game. And we’ve kind of been battling that in the latter part of the season. So I feel like if we can keep guys healthy, and get guys back healthy, then we’ll be feeling better going into that game.”


Most notably, Yamada said running back Ryo Takagi, who shares duties with power back Sueyoshi, should return after sitting out the Lixil game.


A victory over Panasonic would put IBM into the championship game for just the second time in the team’s history. The BigBlue’s first trip to the big show at Tokyo Dome came in 2014, but ended in a 44-10 loss to Fujitsu.


The three other semifinal teams are no strangers to the Japan X Bowl, as they have combined for nine of the last 10 titles. Panasonic won the last of its seven titles in 2015, while Obic won an unprecedented four straight from 2010 to 2013.


Despite the lack of pedigree, Yamada feels the BigBlue are more than up to the task at hand. And they are going to give everything they have to prove it.


“That’s why they are called the Big 3,” Yamada said. “They are good. I think we are the underdog, the challenger. We have nothing to lose, that’s what I always say to the team. But we have an opportunity and that’s a great thing.


“There’s only four teams left and we are proud to be one of the four. So we’ll go all out. If we don’t have enough players for the Japan X Bowl, that’s fine, we’re going to go all out.”














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