IBM BigBlue players and staff were ecstatic after the game and head coach Shinzo Yamada delightfully tapped their shoulders, thanking them for their effort.
It was perhaps a little unusual for a football team after it earned just one win, but there was a reason.
After all, the BigBlue posted a historic victory over the eight-time league champion Seagulls, beating them for the first time.
Yamada said that his team had not defeated any of what he called the league’s “big three” — Obic, the Panasonic Impulse and the Fujitsu Frontiers.
“Now we’ve eliminated one of them,” the former XFL linebacker proudly said after his team edged the Seagulls 38-34 in their X League season-opening game at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday night.
“We used to think that there was no way we would beat this team,” Yamada, who assumed the helm in 2010, said of the Seagulls. “We’d gotten beaten so badly every time we played them and we thought we needed to do something. And Kevin Craft was the answer.”
Entering Tuesday’s game, IBM which was promoted to the X League in 2002, was 0-13 against Obic, losing nine times during the fall season and four times in the spring (Pearl Bowl).
In 2012, the BigBlue acquired former UCLA quarterback Craft. He became the first American QB in X League history and made a big impact throughout the entire league. Many other teams followed suit by signing American signal-callers.
But the addition of a single star didn’t immediately transform the BigBlue into a title contender.
Though they needed to more talent on both offense and defense, the BigBlue required time to develop into a more cohesive, mature squad that could be considered a legitimate championship-caliber team.
But now perhaps the Central Division team might have finally obtained the quality to become an elite team.
In Tuesday night’s game, for example, the Seagulls had the momentum early and an 11-point lead twice in the first half. But the BigBlue later scored four straight touchdowns, including a 98-yard interception return by defensive back Tatsuma Kobayashi in the third quarter, to completely turn the tables.
Asked if they would have bounced back from a deficit against a genuinely competitive team like Obic a few years ago, Craft shook his head with a smile on his face.
“No, definitely not,” said the 31-year-old, who threw for 191 yards and a touchdown against Obic. “My first year and this year, not the same at all. We’ve picked up a lot of really young players and it’s made a big difference, really.”
Tight end John Stanton, another American on IBM, agreed with Craft.
“In the past, we would’ve let that lead kind of suck the air out of us,” said Stanton, who had 183 yards and two touchdowns receiving against the Seagulls. “And we would get down mentally, and we didn’t know how to play from behind. But we’ve been in enough games, now we’ve been able to come back from a deficit and make it a game. And we’ve also lost games that way. So we know this is possible.
“We’ve just got to stick with it. We have really good players. We have good coaches. If we execute, we believe that we can beat any team. That’s what it comes down to.”
Yamada, 44, said that his team, which finished runner-up in the 2015 Japan X Bowl, has definitely improved its depth with more players who can contribute.
For example, looking at the quarterback position, it was solely Craft’s job before. But the BigBlue have given second-year QB Yuki Masamoto chances to play so he can reduce the burden on Craft, who makes play calls and often runs a no-huddle offense.
In fact, IBM boldly went with Masamoto as its primary QB to give him experience during the Pearl Bowl spring season, where it finished second behind Obic, this year.
In the win over Obic on Tuesday, though Craft was under center mostly, Masamoto went in and did well. He completed 5 of 5 passes for 49 yards and a touchdown.
“Craft was playing really well. We were going to use whoever plays the best, but Masamoto was really good as well,” said Yamada. “Masamoto has completely stepped up to the next level. He can play the game now.”
The BigBlue, the 2016 Pearl Bowl champion, used to be a more passing-oriented team around Craft, but now have more balance. On Tuesday, the team combined for 201 yards on the ground, led by power runner Tomokazu Sueyoshi, who racked up 72 yards and a touchdown. Diminutive running back Ryo Takagi contributed 30 yards rushing in the second half.
Stanton said that it has taken six years for the team since he and Craft arrived to reach this level.
One positive sign from Tuesday: The BigBlue rallied for the victory.
And it was possible because they made plays when they needed to. Stanton insisted that winning comes down to whether you make plays or not and hinted that more often than not, the team didn’t make them in crunch time in the past.
“When two good teams play, you’re either making a play or you allow the other team to make a winning play,” Stanton said. “So we were finally able to overcome some of those hurdles, and mentally we stuck in the game all the way through (against Obic).
“It’s just one of the things. We’ve been building team chemistry, we’ve been getting better players, and hopefully, this is the first step and we will win the championship for the season.”
Yamada, Craft and Stanton know that it would not be easy to get to the Japan X Bowl in December and capture the championship trophy.
“We’ve come a long way but this season is a long one,” Craft said. “I mean, you’ve got to go one at a time because every team in the league now, their schedule is really tough. Every week is like, you could get beaten. So you’ve got to go one at a time. You keep your head down, before we look that far ahead.”
Last year, the BigBlue had a 3-3 record in the regular season and were eliminated in the playoff semifinals against the eventual X League champ Frontiers.