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TOP > Game Report > Playoff preview: Rise’s Gardner issues storm warning to Seagulls in rematch

Game Report

Playoff preview: Rise’s Gardner issues storm warning to Seagulls in rematch

’17.11.09

Rise quarter Devin Gardner, center, dives toward the goal line before losing the ball in the third quarter of the Sept. 17 game against the Seagulls, who went on to win 14-0 in the rain. (photo by MI Planning)

 

 

 

 

Playoff preview: Rise’s Gardner issues storm warning to Seagulls in rematch

By Ken Marantz

 

While the weather may not be so different, Devin Gardner is determined to show that he can produce a different outcome from the last time he faced the Obic Seagulls. Especially with how much more is at stake.

 

Gardner will lead the Nojima Sagamihara Rise against the Seagulls into the featured clash of this weekend’s quarterfinals of the Japan X Bowl Tournament, a rematch of their Week 2 meeting that Obic won 14-0 in a driving rain.

 

Gardner has been in a league of his own in his second season in Japan, topping the league in passing yards (1,286) and touchdowns (16) while finishing as the sixth-ranked rusher with 425 yards on 60 carries in six regular-season games.

 

More importantly, the former Michigan starter guided the Rise to a 4-2 record and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, an impressive turnaround after the team finished 1-5 in 2016 and was odd-man-out of the eight playoff spots from the Super 9.

 

“We’re excited about the opportunity to get a chance to compete for a championship,” Gardner said in a telephone interview. “Last year, we didn’t get a chance to. We thought we got really good at the end of the year last year, and just missed the playoffs. So getting a chance to be in the playoffs this year is really good for us.”

 

For the Rise to make the semifinals for a fourth time since earning promotion to X1 in 2011 and first time in two years—they still have not appeared in the Japan X Bowl—they have to get past a tough Obic team in the opening game of a playoff tripleheader at Yokohama Stadium on Saturday.

 

The other games will pit the defending champion Fujitsu Frontiers against the Elecom Kobe Finies, followed by the clash between the IBM BigBlue and Lixil Deers, which will also be a rematch of a regular-season game (won by Lixil 27-26). On Sunday, the unbeaten and top-seeded Panasonic Impulse face the As One Black Eagles at Osaka’s Expo Flash Field.

 

The Seagulls, the losing finalist to Fujitsu last season, were dealt a rare three losses this season, although none of the defeats were by more than four points, and the last was an overtime loss to the Frontiers.

 

That left Obic as the sixth seed, but Gardner said the lines are blurred between teams at this stage.

 

“They are a lot better than a sixth seed,” he said. “They could easily be the [No.] 1 seed, I think. They’re a really good team, offensively and defensively. If we lose, we’ll be a no seed.”

 

When the two met on Sept. 17 at Fujitsu Kawasaki Stadium, Gardner had his worst outing this year, completing only half his passes (14 of 28) and throwing three interceptions (he had seven all season). He also lost a fumble near the Obic goal line.

 

“The first Obic game was awful on my part,” he said. “[Four] turnovers, but we still had a chance to win. That many turnovers is never an option, and you can’t expect to win like that.”

 

Rain is forecast for Saturday–”Of course it is,” Gardner joked –but he and the Rise showed they can handle inclement weather by matching Panasonic in touchdowns in the regular-season finale, although they came up on the short end of a 28-26 score.

 

“Last week we proved we can execute in the rain,” said Gardner, who completed 59% (91 for 153) of his passes this season. “It was our first go-round in the rain the first time we played [Obic]. I think we’re more prepared this time around. You usually don’t get a second chance at a team that beat you during the season. So it’s good to get a chance to do that.”

 

For Gardner, the game will be less about gaining revenge and more about proving the Rise belong among the league’s elite.

 

“Even though we were playing well, it still kind of seemed like teams don’t really respect us the way we believe we should be respected. It was kind of evident before halftime, Panasonic went in and, instead of kicking a field goal, they went for a touchdown. We’re going to have to make them [respect us].”

 

Gardner’s ability to affect a game is beyond question, and Obic’s veteran defensive end Kevin Jackson will be ready to limit the damage.

 

“I think it’s a good challenge for us,” Jackson said by phone. “I don’t think we’re necessarily afraid to play anyone, or any team. So we’re looking forward to it, really.”

 

Jackson had a hand in two of Obic’s interceptions in the regular-season game, causing one by hitting Gardner’s arm as he threw, than grabbing one himself when defensive end B.J. Beatty tipped a pass at the line.

 

Jackson said the key to containing the 193-centimeter, 98-kilogram Gardner, who is an equal threat to run or pass, is for each player to stick to his assignment.

 

“You don’t want to go with the flow, because that’s when he or the other weapons they have on offense can really get at you,” Jackson said. “You really want to be dialed in on where you have to be and what you’re looking at. If you have a certain assignment, it’s really important to follow through on that, and not try to be a hero or do something out of the game plan.”

 

Gardner has gone a long way in getting in synch with his Japanese receivers after his main target in 2016, former Michigan teammate Jeremy Gallon, did not return to the team this season. Yuhei Yagi has filled the void, catching  39 passes for 598 yards and 10 touchdowns—all league highs.

 

Somewhat overshadowed but no less effective has been the backfield pair of bullish fullback Sione Houma, another former teammate at Michigan, and mighty mite halfback Takashi Miyako. The 105-kilogram Houma, who missed some time with an ankle injury, rushed for two touchdowns against Panasonic.

 

Conversely, Obic’s offense has been somewhat erratic, partially due to the delayed appearance of new American quarterback Ikaika Woolsey, who suffered a foot injury during the spring Pearl Bowl tournament that took longer to heal than expected. He has shared playing time with veteran Shun Sugawara—a former star on the Rise after the team was formed from the remnants of the disbanded Onward Oaks.

 

The attack has gotten a boost from the presence of rookie running back Taku Lee, who has formed an explosive tandam with Asaki Mochizuki. The two combined to rush for 463 yards on 98 carries.

 

Like Nojima, Obic lost a close game to Panasonic, falling 16-13 in Week 5. Combined with the defeat by Fujitsu, the Seagulls return to Yokohama with a two-game losing streak. But Jackson said that has not affected the confidence or morale of the squad.

 

“Not a problem at all,” he said. “The two losses were two losses that easily could have gone the other way. And that’s me objectively looking at it. The last one was in overtime, one play away. The first one, they made a play late in the game and went ahead. We weren’t able to match what they did at the end and it got away from us.

 

“It’s not like we’re out there getting blown out. We understand why we lost those games, what went wrong. And I think we tried to address some of those things in practice this past week. Hopefully, we’ll do a better job of executing and not falling into the similar bad patterns or bad habits that cost us the last two games.”

 

Jackson expects that Nojima will be different from the team Obic played in the first meeting, which he said has little relevance to what will transpire on Saturday.

 

“It’s a completely different situation,” Jackson said. “It was the second game of the season, so both teams, they’ve obviously improved as the year went on, and I would like to say we’ve improved as well. So it’s two different teams playing each other this coming weekend.”

 

For Gardner, the key to victory is obvious.

 

“We have to avoid turnovers,” he said. “When we have opportunities to make plays, offensively and defensively, even the kicking game and special teams, we have to take advantage. Because if you don’t get many opportunities against a really good team like Obic.”

 

Even with the high stakes, Gardner said he has no plans to play it safe or conservatively, such as taking a sack to avoid the possibility of an interception.

 

“I’m going to play the way I’ll always play. If you go in thinking about things like that and trying to avoid those types of mistakes, which you can’t control, that’s when you kind of play timid. That’s just as bad as being careless.”

 

He’s prepared to weather whatever the Seagulls—and Mother Nature—have in store for him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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