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Obic Seagulls repeat as Rice Bowl champs

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

No quitting and no panicking. Those are championship qualities, and the Seagulls proved they have both in Japanese football’s annual showcase event.

The reigning national champion Obic Seagulls completely stole the show, scoring 27 points, in the final quarter as they defeated the collegiate champion Kwansei Gakuin University 38-28 in the 65th Rice Bowl at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday afternoon.

Quarterback Shun Sugawara guided the Seagulls’ 325-yard offensive attack, engineering their surge late in the game, to bring an unprecedented fifth Rice Bowl title as an X League club.

Sugawara was 15-for-22 passing for 203 yards with three touchdowns and was given the Paul Rush Trophy, which is presented to the game’s Most Valuable Player, for the second consecutive year.

“Our players have played good throughout the season,” Seagulls head coach Makoto Ohashi said after the game. “So I wanted to make them the champions, today, and I did. I’m relieved.”

With Kwansei Gakuin up 17-11, Obic finally took the lead as Sugawara ran into the end zone on the team’s first play of the fourth quarter to make it.

Kwansei Gakuin, nicknamed the Fighters, retook the lead at 20-18 on a field goal soon after that. But the Seagulls took advantage of two interceptions for a pair of TDs to seal the victory.

“It was rather other players than me,” said Sugawara, who also ran for a pair of touchdowns. “I don’t think (the MVP) should’ve been (given) to me. I give the credit to our offensive line, which made it possible for me to play as I wanted to.”

Nonetheless, Obic had a tough challenge against Kwansei Gakuin and its back-to-back championship banner quest was threatened by the Kansai school.

Kwansei Gakuin opened the game with a successful onside kick and grabbed momentum, taking a 7-0 lead after an interception by linebacker Yuki Ikeda on Obic’s first offensive series.

With colorful offensive plays and relentless defensive effort, Kwansei Gakuin walked off the field at halftime with a 14-3 lead against Obic.

But the more experienced Seagulls had no jitters and initiated their rally with a touchdown — a pass from Sugawara to wide receiver Kentaro Mori — midway through the third quarter.

This year’s collegiate MVP and kicker Yukinobu Onishi made a 48-yard field goal to give Kwansei Gakuin a six-point lead, but it couldn’t halt the Seagulls’ surge during the rest of the game.

From its own 29, Obic advanced the ball for 69 yards on a pass interference call against Kwansei and a long pass from Sugawara to wideout Ken Shimizu on the last drive of the third quarter. That set the table for Sugawara’s go-ahead rushing TD in the fourth.

From that point on, it was all Obic. The champions had a pair of interceptions, and on both occasions they were converted into touchdowns.

Obic had just 92 yards on offense (43 yards in the air) in the first half.

Sugawara said that his team had a hard time getting first downs early on and that made it a challenge for his team to get into an offensive rhythm.

“We had three-and-outs and that made it difficult to get some rhythm,” Sugawara said.

The Seagulls scored 27 points in the fourth quarter, while Kwansei Gakuin had 352 total yards. Junior quarterback Takushiro Hata had 178 yards passing and threw an interception for Kwansei Gakuin.

Obic’s American defensive end Kevin Jackson said that the second straight championship means a lot to the team. The Seagulls had advanced to the Rice Bowl in 2002 and lost, but then won it in 2005. This was the first time the Seagulls had returned to the Rice Bowl for a second straight year.

“This is hard to do, to win two years in a row,” Jackson said.

“Today’s game was really a tough game. But guys really hung in there and played for each other, and we got it done. This is good.”

Bye week helps 49ers

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA
AP

San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made one thing clear Monday: A playoff bye week is nothing like the break teams get at midseason.

Still, the NFC West champions are relishing some extra prep time considering all the players trying to get healthy ahead of the franchise’s first playoff game in nine years.

“It feels like an advantage. How big, we’ll see,” Harbaugh said of the extra week. “I know this: We’re not going to treat it like a vacation.”