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Maeda's late punt return carries Lixil past Obic in Pearl Bowl semifinals

by Hiroshi Ikezawa

Staff Writer

Kick returner Naoki Maeda returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown with 38 seconds to play, giving the Lixil Deers a 21-16 comeback victory over the Obic Seagulls on Sunday in the semifinals of the Pearl Bowl tournament.

The Deers advanced to the final for the first time since 2013 and will take on the IBM BigBlue, who beat the Nojima Sagamihara Rise 34-21 in Sunday’s later semifinal game at the same venue, on June 13 at Tokyo Dome.

“I always tell my players to not give up until the end of the game whenever we have a chance. It turned out true today,” Lixil coach Kiyoyuki Mori said. “Over 30 years of my experience in football, I have never experienced this kind of ending. We kept patient on offense, defense and special teams today. We are confident that we play well in a close game.”

Playing before a crowd of 3,605 spectators at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki, the Deers-Seagulls game saw the lead change three times in the final five minutes.

With the Seagulls up 10-7 with 4:39 remaining, Lixil quarterback Shohei Kato hit wide receiver Katsuya Nagakawa with a 6-yard scoring strike, the pair’s second touchdown connection of the game, making the score 14-10.

But the Seagulls wasted no time to fight back when Shun Sugawara, who started over former UCLA quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ryoma Hagiyama two minutes later.

The ensuing offensive drive by the Deers ended when Kato got sacked by defensive lineman Takuya Seike on fourth down at their own 44 with 1:50 left.

The Deers, however, used solid defense and two timeouts and forced the Seagulls to punt with 38 seconds to play.

When he saw the punt by Takeshi Nagao sail low, Maeda stepped forward and grabbed the ball in front of his chest as he normally does as a wide receiver. It was too quick for the Seagulls to react immediately, and they let Maeda bring the punt back home.

“The moment of the catch, I knew I can bring it to the end zone. It was risky, but it was the only way I can make a long return,” Maeda said. “If the punt had gone high, it would not have happened. But we always have the mentality to go aggressive.”

In the day’s other game, Tomokazu Sueyoshi rushed for 135 yards and a score on 17 carries to help the BigBlue reach the Pearl Bowl Final for the first time in the team’s 40-year history.

Kevin Craft shared playing time with rookie quarterback Yuki Masamoto and both threw a touchdown pass for the BigBlue.

The Rise trailed 25-0 at the end of the third quarter and cut it to 34-21 behind Ryo Fujimoto’s three touchdown passes, but fell short.