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Patient Kajima downs Kansai University in Rice Bowl

by Kaz Nagatsuka

It doesn’t matter how you play — the most important thing is to finish a game ahead of your opponent. The Kajima Deers won Sunday’s game with exactly that in mind.

Deers kicker Hiromichi Kashima nailed a 25-yard field goal as the clock expired in the final quarter in Kajima’s 19-16 victory over the Kansai University Kaisers in the 63rd Rice Bowl at Tokyo Dome.

It was the first national championships title in 12 years for Kajima.

Kajima never led until the game-winning kick, which came with four seconds left.

“We weren’t able to prepare well and failed to showcase what we could do,” Deers head coach Kiyoyuki Mori said. “But our players made it up well and credit to Kashima for sinking the kick.

“I told our players in the meeting before the game that we were going to win even if it was just by one point, no matter how ugly we played.”

It was a crude but gutsy defensive rally by both teams. While the bigger and cannier Kajima defense overwhelmed the Kaisers’ heavily run-oriented offense with power, Kansai University countered with speed and movement.

Kansai University took a 10-0 lead at one stage, but Kajima’s defense gradually prevailed and came through in the final quarter. It only allowed one first down to the Kaisers’ three offensive series in the period.

The crucial moment came with just over two minutes remaining on Kansai University’s last offensive series.

On second-and-7, the Kaisers went for a special pass play with quarterback Daichi Haraguchi and running back Yuto Fujimori from their own 34. But with a couple of Kajima defenders reading their moves well, Haraguchi committed an illegal forward pass penalty and lost nearly 20 yards yards on the play.

The following punt was poor and gave the Deers a good field position at Kansai University 33.

In the following series by the Kajima offense, ace quarterback Yosuke Ozaki, who did not start because of a left foot injury, came in during the final period. He hit receiver Naoki Maeda for a 15-yard completion for a first down and running back Yasuhiro Maruta had another first down on a 13-yard run to set the table for the Kashima’s game-winner.

Kajima, under three quarterbacks, had 370 yards in total offense, while the Kaisers had 224 (148 passing).

Maruta led the Deers with 87 yards in their ground game, followed by Yuta Sone with 69.

Kansai University has outstanding running corps in Haraguchi, running backs Fujimori and Mitsuhiko Matsumori. But the Deers defense successfully silenced its opponent’s biggest weapon.

“Our defensive line was great today,” said Kajima captain and linebacker Takashi Makiuchi, who led the team in tackles with eight and was chosen as Most Valuable Player. “Because of that, we linebackers were feeling safe behind them.”

Meanwhile, both Haraguchi and Fujimori had tears in their eyes after the loss. The Suita, Osaka Pref., school scored 50 points in its triumph over Hosei University in the Koshien Bowl, the national collegiate championship, a few weeks before. But it couldn’t notch a single touchdown in Sunday’s game.

“I couldn’t convert plays in the crucial moments,” said senior Haraguchi, who passed for 165 yards and rushed for 37. “We had anticipated that Kajima would be pretty tough, but we came up short in the end and that’s the bottom line.”

Fujimori, a junior, promised payback in his final year in college.

“I feel like I gave 100 percent in the game,” said this season’s college player of the year. “But as we lined up right after the game and heard our fans, I thought maybe I could’ve done even better. I want to come back stronger next season.”

Kansai University, which won its first Koshien Bowl title in 62 years, closed its Cinderella year with the first loss of the season.

But manager Masatoshi Isowa was unbowed, saying he was satisfied with the team’s run.

“Our team was far from good at the start of the season,” Isowa said. “Yet our players kept pushing themselves and tried to move forward every day. I credit the players for getting us so far.”