The Deers ended last season by losing to the Obic Seagulls 21-12 in the semifinals of the X League playoffs at Yokohama Stadium. It was also their last game as the Kajima Corporation-owned football team.
A year later at the same site, the Deers, now sponsored by Lixil Corporation, picked up a big win which not only avenged last year’s defeat but also made them the Central Division champion in the X League.
The Seagulls’ winning streak in the first stage ended at 24. Their last loss in the first stage was on Oct. 24, 2009.
Shohei Kato hit Naoki Maeda with two touchdown passes, leading the Deers to a 23-17 victory over the four-time defending national champion Seagulls on Sunday. The Deers finished the first stage of the season with a perfect 5-0 record and clinched the division. The Seagulls were 4-1 and placed in second.
Both teams advance to the Super 9 division, where the top three teams of three divisions compete in the second stage. Asahi Beer (3-2) ranked third by defeating All-Mitsubishi (2-3) 31-17 later on Sunday, and heads to the Super 9.
Fujitsu (4-0), IBM (4-1) and Nojima Sagamihara (3-1) of the East Division have also earned berths in the Super 9 as well as Elecom (5-0), Panasonic (4-1) and Asahi Soft Drinks (3-2) of the West. Fujitsu plays Nojima Sagamihara at Kawasaki’s Todoroki Stadium on Monday in the final game of the first stage.
The Deers took advantage of their opponent’s mistakes to score. In Obic’s second possession, punter Ken Nagao juggled a snap and was forced into a short-distance kick that allowed the Deers to start their offense at their own 46. During the drive, Kato threw a 30-yard pass to Yasuhiro Miyamoto to advance to the Obic 1. Three plays later, Kato connected Maeda with a 1-yard scoring toss three seconds into the second quarter for a 7-0 lead. It was the first score the Seagulls allowed this fall after four straight shutout wins.
The Seagulls quickly countered when Noriaki Kinoshita returned the following kickoff to the Obic 47 and capped a three-play, 53-yard game-tying drive with a 37-yard reception from Takushiro Hata.
The Seagulls had another scoring chance as team captain Naoki Kosho, who recovered from a knee injury suffered in Pearl Bowl Final in June and made his first appearance this fall, picked off Kato’s pass at the Lixil 12. But three straight rushing plays gave them only 3 yards, and the Seagulls ended that drive with a field goal.
The defensive effort motivated the Deers offense and Kato hit Maeda again, this time with a 13-yarder, for another touchdown that gave the Deers a 14-10 halftime lead.
The Deers defense again made a game-changing play by intercepting Hata at the Obic 38, which their offense converted to a 27-yard field goal with 4:11 remaining in the third quarter. The Deers added a field goal in the next possession, making the score 20-10 with 0:20 before going into the final period.
A two-possession lead with a quarter left is never safe against the Seagulls, who can find the end zone quickly. Starting at their own 35, Hata completed 14- and 8-yard passes in back-to-back plays before rushing 21 yard to bring the ball to the Lixil 17. Then Kinoshita concluded the drive with a 7-yard scoring run three plays later to cut the Deers’ lead to three points.
After holding the Deers following offense to a field goal to keep the margin within a touchdown, the Seagulls moved the ball to the Lixil 4. But Hata fumbled the snap and Hiroyuki Shigechika recovered it with 3:05 to play. Then the Deers ran off the clock to wrap up their first victory over the Seagulls in four seasons.
“Our defense played well today,” Lixil head coach Kiyoyuki Mori said. “We tried to not allow many big plays. The defense has improved since early in the season. We were also helped by (the Seagulls’) mistakes. They had some fouls and made catching or passing mistakes at crucial moments.”