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TOP > Game Report > Rise surprise: Gardner leads Nojima to upset of Fujitsu, into Pearl Bowl semis

Game Report

Rise surprise: Gardner leads Nojima to upset of Fujitsu, into Pearl Bowl semis

’17.05.22

Rise quarterback Devin Gardner scores on a 4-yard run in the fourth quarter for his fourth rushing touchdown of the day.

 

 

 

KAWASAKI (May 21)–The Nojima Sagamihara Rise went into this spring’s Pearl Bowl tournament out to prove, as much to themselves as anyone else, that they were not the team that had such a disappointing season last fall.

 

The Fujitsu Frontiers, coming off winning a second X-League and national championship in three years, mainly wanted to test out their new players and give their bench players some valuable game time experience.

 

The disparity in objectives set the stage for the lone surprise of the group stage of the Pearl Bowl, as the Rise rode the arms and legs of second-year American quarterback Devin Gardner to a solid 38-20 victory at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki.

 

Gardner accounted for all five Rise touchdowns, running for four and passing for the other as the Rise advanced to the semifinals, where they will face the defending champion IBM BigBlue on June 4. In the other semifinal, the Obic Seagulls will take on the Lixil Deers.

 

Gardner, the lone American playing for the Rise in the spring, completed 15 of 23 passes for 207 yards with one interception, while rushing 13 times for 164 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown romp in which he plowed over a Fujitsu defender.

 

Gardner’s exploits came against a Fujitsu defense that included a number of regular members, including cornerback Al-Rilwan Adeyami, who was forced into action due to a lack of healthy defensive backs on the roster. But defensive end Trashaun Nixon saw limited action, and on offense, quarterback Colby Cameron and running back Gino Gordon were not in on a single snap.

 

“Getting a chance to play the defending champions, no matter who they play, we come to win the game and they want to win the game,” Gardner said. “So that’s a great step in the right direction. You go and play who you play, so I’m excited about that.

 

“Obviously it would have felt better if they had played at full strength, but we’re not a full strength right now. We only have me as an American. I felt that even now, we played well.”

 

The two teams met during the regular season last fall, and Fujitsu rallied to a 17-10 victory on a Gordon touchdown run and 2-point conversion with 22 seconds remaining. It was one of five losses the Rise were dealt after going into the fourth quarter either leading or tied, and came by a combined total of 21 points.

 

Fujitsu head coach Satoshi Fujita acknowledged that the Rise had raised their game, while stressing that to the Frontiers, the outcome was not as important in the long run.

 

“Always losing is hard,” Fujita said. “The biggest thing is that (we achieve our objective). That is the goal in the spring. Even if we are winning or losing, it doesn’t matter–not doesn’t matter, it matters–but more important thing is to improve. This game, we lost to the Rise, but they improved. They proved it. So in two meanings, we lost.”

 

The Rise are determined to avoid a repeat of last season and are using the spring tournament to sharpen their play execution and bulk up physically. One place where the latter was apparent was in 32-year-old running back Takashi Miyako, who stands just 166 centimeters but slashed and bulled his way to 114 yards on 21 carries.

 

Gardner, at 193 centimeters the tallest player on a Rise roster that includes 13 rookies, said he himself had added strength to his 93-kilogram frame. He also has been working meticulously to get in better sync with his receivers.

 

“That comes with time,” said Gardner, who played collegiately at Big Ten powerhouse Michigan. “I wasn’t as sharp as I’d like to be last year either, because I had sat out a year of football. I’m a lot sharper this year, and everybody knows what everybody expects.

 

“We know the strengths and weaknesses of each other, so we don’t put each other in bad positions to make plays that we’re not capable of making. So I feel like that’s really good.”

 

Gardner said they have progressed to the point that he can throw to a spot without seeing the receiver, confident that he will get to the ball.

 

“There were a couple of big plays down the field where I couldn’t quite see (the receiver), but I knew for sure he’d be there,” Gardner said. “It just shows the hard work that we’ve been putting in, and the crazy man I’ve been in practice.”

 

Nojima came into the spring without wide receiver and Gardner’s former Michigan teammate Jeremy Gallon, his main target last year. But the current receiving corps held their own against Fujitsu.

 

Yuhei Yagi caught five passes for 70 yards, while rookie Kento Suzuki had four receptions for 81 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter in which he wrestled the ball away from a defender at the goal line.

 

“This year (Gardner’s) receivers can catch the ball,” Fujitsu noted. “Last year, they dropped those.”

 

Nojima and Fujitsu both had easily disposed of the other team in their group, the Tokyo Metopolitan Police Eagles. The Frontiers won 49-0, while the Rise rolled to a 64-0 rout. Both scores were kept down by a special rule in which the fourth-quarter clock is kept running if one team has a 30-point lead–sort of football’s version of the mercy rule.

 

The Rise got the showdown off to an unusual start, when they went for an onside kick on the opening kickoff, and recovered it at the 50. Gardner then led them down to the Fujitsu 7, where he ran the ball in himself, stiff-arming two would-be tacklers along the way.

 

On his second touchdown run, a 4-yarder early in the second quarter, Gardner shrugged off a tackler before diving into the end zone.

 

Fujitsu, which rotated Tsubasa Takagi and Keiya Hiramoto at quarterback, got on the scoreboard on the next drive, with Keita Takanohashi scoring on an 11-yard run to cap an 11-play, 64-yard drive to make it 14-7, which is how the game went into halftime.

 

Gardner restored the two-touchdown lead with the play of the game early in the second half. On 2nd-and- 11 from the 40, Gardner scrambled to his right, then cut upfield along the sideline.

 

After getting through a crowd and staying in bounds, he met up with 85-kilogram defensive back Keita Sato–and after a fierce crash, proceeded to run him over like a runaway truck before taking it all the way to the end zone.

 

At his size, Gardner said he has always been confident of being able to ward off tacklers in one-on-one situations.

 

“Even in the Big Ten, like all my life, the first guy I kind of look behind him, like who’s next?” Gardner said. “Just because I’m comfortable with my skills, and working hard and working in the weight room. I feel like I’m pretty deceptive. I’m faster than I look. I look like I’m not going that fast, but for some reason, I’m moving a little faster.”

 

Gardner also revealed that there was a blocker ahead of him, but he let Sato go, perhaps under the mistaken notion that Gardner might still throw the ball.

 

“That was a complete mistake, because our guy was blocking him and he left,” Gardner said. “I was like seven yards down the field and I don’t know if he thought I was going to throw it to him, but I can’t. (Sato) was surprised, I was surprised. He didn’t tackle me, so I just kept moving.”

 

Gardner missed a touchdown pass on the next drive when he overthrew a receiver in the end zone whose defender had fallen, and Nojima had to settle for Kohei Ichimori’s 25-yard field goal.

 

Fujitsu put together another long drive that was capped by Kyohei Morita’s nice catch over a defender’s back of an 11-yard touchdown pass from Hiramoto, who finished 12 of 18 for 109 yards.

 

After the Rise went ahead 31-14 early in the fourth quarter on Gardner’s TD pass to Suzuki, veteran Kosuke Kamiyama thrilled the Frontiers’ fans among the crowd of 2,352 by returning the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Gardner capped the scoring by waltzing in from the 4 midway through the final quarter.

 

Seagulls soar past Silver Star

 

Meanwhile in the earlier game, Obic booked its ticket into the semifinals by routing the Asahi Beer Silver Star 50-7.

 

Shun Sugawara threw for three touchdowns and ran for another, and newcomer Ikaika Woolsey threw a 63-yard touchdown pass and ran for two scores as the Seagulls amassed 588 total yards of offense.

 

The groundwork for the demolition was laid by a ground game that piled up 249 yards, including 104 on just eight carries by Atsuki Mochizuki.

 

Obic also seems to have found a diamond in the rough in rookie running back Keita Naruse, who had 27 yards on six carries and caught three passes for 54 yards.

 

Naruse made Obic last season through a tryout, but had to sit out the season until he graduated from Nagoya University. He spent that time working out in the weight room.

 

“We knew he had a lot of skill to him,” Obic offensive coordinator Daniel Lynds said. “What we didn’t know was that he had good vision…he really sees the run plays well. He sees gaps develop and he has a good sense for that. Knock on wood, let’s hope he keeps doing it for us.”

 

—Ken Marantz for the X-League

 

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