Nothing in football comes easy. You’ll just have to forgive the Fujitsu Frontiers for making it look that way.
The reigning Japanese champions ensured a chance to defend their crown Sunday, downing the Elecom Kobie Finies 34-3 to clinch their eighth consecutive X Bowl appearance. It was a game in which the result never seemed in doubt and the Frontiers were occasionally caught going through the motions against a Finies team that was as overmatched as it was resilient. Despite offensive mistakes, the Fujitsu defense made the win look easy, getting into the backfield for seven sacks and recording three interceptions while keeping Elecom out of the endzone.
That defensive dominance began on the very first drive when a high ball from Finies quarterback Cody Sokol sailed into the hands of Hiroki Takaguchi for the games first turnover. Four plays later, the Frontiers opened the scoring when Riki Matsui took the shovel pass from Michael Birdsong on the end around, avoiding the initial penetration from Shintaro Kiho and bouncing off two other defenders on a 10-yard touchdown run.
The Frontiers were back at it on their next drive with Birdsong finding Matsui deep for a 47 yard gain, but the Finies responded with one of the games more unusual plays. An underthrown ball from Birdsong hit defensive back Toshiki Kamura in the hands and he appeared to drop the ball, only to have replay confirm that the ball had deflected of his foot instead of the turf and back up into his arms for an interception that surprised even the recipient. Unfortunately, Elecom was unable to generate anything from the miraculous play and Fujitsu was soon back in scoring position. This time, Birdsong felt holding onto the ball was the safer option and kept it himself on the read option, bulldozing a helpless Akishi Nakamura on an 11-yard touchdown run right up the gut.
Down two scores, the Finies offense appeared to gain some momentum to end the first quarter by rattling off three first downs. The end result was no different. With pressure in his face, Sokol attempted to heave the ball to Alfonso Onunwor in the endzone but Shoichi Hida came down with the contested interception. The Frontiers marched the field again and a 36-yard Michael Birdsong run set up a 36-yard Hidetetsu Nishimura field goal to make it 17-0. Both teams fell into an offensive lull for the rest of the quarter until the Finies final drive with 51 seconds remaining. Sokol drove his team 61 yards on eight plays, twice finding Onunwor for big gains and setting up a 38-yarder from Shogo Tadara to end the half with points on the board.
They would be Elecom’s only ones of the game. A surprise onside kick to start the second half backfired when Fujitsu captain Shoki Choi recovered in prime field position and five plays later, Birdsong avoided the pressure and found an outstretched Riki Matsui for the touchdown. On the next drive, the Frontiers again looked set to score when Birdsong called his own number on a nine yard run to paydirt, but Takanori Yamamoto punched the ball loose at the goal line for Yuki Tonegawa to recover. The linebacker’s heroics would all be for naught however, as the Finies went three and out in the shadow of their own goal post and Fujitsu secured points shortly after with a 33-yard Nishimura field goal.
The Finies would make one more meaningful drive to start the fourth quarter but came up short on fourth and goal when a flushed Sokol attempted to connect with Kazuki Sakemoto short of the mark, only to see it deflected into the hands of Akio Yamagishi. With Tsubasa Takagi in at quarterback for mop up duty, the homegrown back-up secured the Finies fate with a perfectly thrown 29-yard touchdown to Genta Shibata. Sokol spent the remainder of the final frame unsuccessfully avoiding pressure and the Frontiers cruised to a 34-3 victory.
In a season ending loss for the Finies, Cody Sokol was 20 0f 43 passing for 195 yards and three interceptions. Yuki Shiragami managed nine carries for 43 yards on the ground and Alfonso Onunwor led all receivers with 7 receptions for 71 yards. Elecom’s best player was on defense, where American defensive end Cardell Rawlings managed 7.5 tackles and four sacks while being constantly disruptive. Toshiki Kimura was noticeable with four tackles to go with his interception, while Daiki Ishigaki also added a quarterback takedown.
It was business as usual for the dominant Frontiers. Michael Birdsong was an easy 15 of 21 passing for 186 yards, a touchdown and a pick, while also leading his team with 81 yards and a score along the ground. Tsubasa Takagi was four of eight for 74 yards and a touchdown in relief. Offensively, 23-year old Riki Matsui was the difference maker, catching three passes for 75 yards and a score in addition to his 10-yard rushing touchdown. Running back Samajie Grant had a pedestrian day by his standards, contributing 52 yards from scrimmage.
Defensively, the Frontiers put forth a team effort. Yuji Umishima and Shoichi Hida shared the team lead in tackles with five, while Hida, Yamagishi and Takaguchi added interceptions. Ryota Takahashi led the way with two quarterback sacks, but Kento Ikeda, Yuchiro Kuge, Takumi Takaoka, Shoichiro Suzuki, and Yuhi Fujitani each got to Sokol on a rough day for the Finies passer.
The four-time defending champion Frontiers are in familiar territory as the X Bowl favorites and will now have three weeks to prepare for a championship matchup against the Obic Seagulls, the same team they knocked off to start their winning streak in 2016. For almost a decade, Fujitsu has made winning in Japan look routine and Sunday was no different, but the lights of the Tokyo Dome always present a different test. While getting there looked easy, winning is the hard part.