For more than 30 minutes, the Kajima Deers offense resembled . . . well a deer in headlights.
What a difference a half makes.
The Deers exploded for 21 unanswered points in the second half and benefited from a strong defensive showing to capture the X League title with a 21-14 victory over the Fujitsu Frontiers in the Japan X Bowl on Monday in front of a crowd of 22,059 at Tokyo Dome.
“Because of the effort by our defense in the first half, I thought we would have a chance to win the game,” Deers head coach Kiyoyuki Mori said. “We didn’t care how ugly the game was going to be, or even if it was a one-point game as long as we won.”
Quarterback Yosuke Ozaki and receiver Naoki Maeda were at the center of the offensive resurgence, setting up a field goal with a 51-yard pass play in the third quarter and hooking up again for a 78-yard touchdown in the fourth.
“I was going to do everything I could, because I really wanted to win this game,” Maeda said. “It was a pretty tough first half for us. But I was determined that I would be the guy to win this game. I’m very pleased that I could do that.”
Maeda finished with 3 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown. He was named the MVP of the contest.
“We did the best we could,” Fujitsu coach Satoshi Fujita said about the Frontiers’ struggles to contain Maeda. “He’s got pretty good speed and I cannot blame my players for that.”
The win gives the Deers their second X League title and first since 1997. Kajima lost in last season’s X Bowl.
The Deers move on to the Rice Bowl, where they will face the collegiate champion Kansai University Kaisers for the national championship on Jan. 3 at Tokyo Dome.
The Deers also got a measure of revenge against the Frontiers, who handed them a 22-20 loss in October, Kajima’s lone defeat of the season.
The win gives Deers head coach Kiyoyuki Mori a victory over his Fujitsu counterpart and college teammate Fujita. The two played together for the Kyoto University Gangsters in the late 80s.
Fujitsu was vying for its first X League championship after falling in the title game in 2002 and 2007.
“We played well, but they played better than us,” Fujita said. “Kajima is a great team.”
They looked to be headed in the right direction early on, capping the game’s opening drive with a 32-yard touchdown run by Yuichi Kon.
Their defense set the tone from there, stuffing the Deers’ rushing attack and preserving the team’s 7-0 advantage heading into halftime.
Having found few running lanes against the the stout Frontier defense, Mori sent Ozaki, who was the team leader with a 174.5 passer rating, into the game for a change of pace.
The move paid immediate dividends when Ozaki found Maeda for a 51-yard completion to the Frontiers’ 2-yard line on the opening drive of the half. The Deers were held to a field goal, which cut the lead to 7-3.
An interception by Tadanori Sano on the ensuing Fujitsu possession gave the Deers the ball on their opponents’ 29 and led to another field goal.
“We have done so much analysis on Fujitsu’s offense so much,” Sano said. “It paid off on my interception. I had been telling my teammates I was going to play with courage and it paid off.”
The Deers finally hit paydirt on their next possession, scoring their first touchdown on a six-yard run by Yasuhiro Maruta with 1:37 left in the third quarter. They had to settle for a 12-7 advantage after failing on their two-point conversion try.
Ozaki and Maeda hooked up again in the fourth quarter, connecting on a 79-yard touchdown reception. The score gave the Deers a 18-7 lead after again failing to score on the two-point conversion.
The Deers added another field goal with 4:07 to play, taking a 21-7 lead.
The Frontiers’ tried to rally late in the fourth with quarterback Akihiro Izuhara finding Brad Brennan for a touchdown to make the score 21-14 with 2:25 left in the game.
Staff writers Hiroshi Ikezawa and Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report