Japan’s Top College Team Challenges X League Champion In Rice Bowl

The last game of the Japanese football season sees college champion the Kwansei Gakuin Fighters take on X-League winner the Fujitsu Frontiers in the Rice Bowl on Jan 3rd.

To put it in context, this would be like Alabama or Clemson challenging the winner of Super Bowl 51 for the national championship.

The national championship decider, which kicks off at 3pm Tuesday in Tokyo Dome, is a rematch of the 2015 final which Fujitsu won 33-24.

Kwansei continued its recent dominance of the university football scene in 2016. Making its sixth Rice Bowl in the last seven years, the Osaka-based college is a perfect 9-0 on the season and 17-0 overall since April. It has only won once in ten trips to the Big Game though, and that sole victory came 15 years ago.

Fujitsu likewise has a single national championship to its name but that’s because before 2015 the Frontiers had never even made it to the Rice Bowl.

Fujitsu v IBM - 28th Japan X Bowl

Fujitsu Frontiers celebrating 2016 Japan X Bowl win

The Kawasaki-based club has made big strides in the past few years however and the December 12th win over Obic Seagulls was their fourth straight Japan X-Bowl appearance.

A big reason for the Frontiers recent success has been the quality of their import players. The four Americans on the roster are all dominant at their respective positions.

Although the team has big names on the offensive side of the ball, it’s the “D” which has been the real strength of the team this season. IBM were the only team to score more than 13 points against Fujitsu, and in five of nine games, opponents managed 7 points or less. Linebacker Trashaun Nixon continued his outstanding season blowing up three straight Seagulls plays inside the one-yard line in the X-Bowl to help the Frontiers beat the eight-time champions.

Cornerback Al-Rilwan Adeyemi was in on one of those Nixon tackles and the Nigerian-born ballhawk who forced a fumble in the game is a serious threat to pick the ball off anytime a quarterback makes the mistake of throwing at him.

Kwansei will try to made headway against that formidable defense by ramping up every college team’s traditional heavy use of trick plays in the Rice Bowl. At a press conference on December 21st Head Coach Toriuchi told the assembled media that his team had installed 30 “special plays” (as trick plays are called in Japan) especially for Fujitsu.

“Wow, that’s a whole playbook” said Adeyemi when told of the pronouncement.


Kwansei Gakuin Fighers en route to winning 2016 Koshien Bowl

The veteran wasn’t overly concerned though, adding

“In terms of the amount of trick plays they plan on running, it comes down to assignment football. It’s as simple as doing your job. If we all focus on our assignments and do it the best of our ability we’ll be okay; when we get in trouble is when we begin to try to do other people’s job.”

With Toriuchi telling the press to make sure they wrote down the number of plays it may just be long-time coach playing mind games with the opposition. Regardless, Kwansei is sure to go for it on fourth down more than often than usual and the Rice Bowl is traditionally the place where the most interesting football of the year is played, even if the X-League sides have had the better of it in recent seasons. It’s not only the college teams that rely on trickery however with Panasonic needing a dramatic deep hook and ladder to win last year’s game

In essence though, the Rice Bowl can be viewed as a battle pitting superstar players against ultra tight teamwork. This year with a dominant college power trying to translate their success into a win against a newly powerful club side with an aggressive top class defense and a dangerous scrambling QB, half close your eyes and you could almost imagine you are watching Alabama against the Seattle Seahawks.

John Gunning is a Tokyo based sports writer. He is a sumo commentator for NHK and covers MMA and American football for national and international publications.