Phoenix Rise Again
Nichidai Win First National Collegiate Title In 27 Years
The silence was deafening as freshman Quarterback Taiki Hayashi took a knee to run out the clock on the 2017 Koshien Bowl.
Hayashi, named the game's MVP, led Nihon University to a stunning 23-17 upset over local favorite and defending champions Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters, to give Phoenix their first national championship in 27 years.
Few expected the drought to end on this day and it didn't seem on the cards with Fighters looking dominant from the opening.
After electing to receive, KG's return man Maeda picked up and returned a low knuckling ball for 16 yards, QB Koki Nishino picked up a huge gain running through a gaping hole in the defense on a busted play and found WR Riki Matsui with a short pass on the following one. Matsui broke four tackles for a 42-yard reception before finally getting pushed out of bounds where he fell onto the famous black Koshien dirt. Unfortunately, the third year man couldn’t regain his feet and had to be taken away on a stretcher, ending his day just seconds into the game.
After the restart, on just the third play from scrimmage, Nishino was scrambling again, first to his right then reversing course all the way back to the left goal-line pylon where he dove into end zone for a TD. The Fighters converted the PAT and led 7-0 after just a minute of play.
Phoenix tried a quick strike on their first possession. On 2nd and 9, QB Hayashi, who worked out of the shotgun all day, circled the backfield, buying time, before seeing his man open long. Hayashi launched a high spiral that was just inches past the outstretched hands of the receiver who had nothing but open turf between him and the end zone.
Nichidai (as Nihon University is common called) looked to be trouble again almost immediately when Fighters RB Yusuke Yamaguchi evaded several would be tacklers for a 16-yard gain on his first carry. Yamaguchi would lead the Fighters with 72 rushing yards on 16 carries and he got the ball again on the next play. On his second attempt, however, he was stopped for no gain by a stout Moses Wiseman tackle.
Fellow American Bronson Beatty and the Phoenix defense were starting to get into the game. Beatty, who led the team with 8 tackles on the day, said, “We have a lot of young players, so a lot of nerves. The first couple drives we had to settle in. Once we settled in it was just play ball from there.” That Fighters drive ended with a punt to the 1-yard line on a fake field goal attempt as the Phoenix defense started to gain the upper hand.
Hayashi and the offense were playing ball too, going 99 yards in 10 plays for a TD on the ensuing possession. The PAT kick was blocked though, leaving the Phoenix were behind on the scoreboard 6-7, but suddenly in the game.
The TD drive started with RB So Min Jie gaining ten yards right up the middle and ended with a 39-yard TD pass to WR 83 Hirotsugi Hayashi for the only touchdown reception of the game. In between those plays, QB Hayashi, twice tucked the ball and fearlessly charged straight ahead, breaking through the middle of the line and kick starting his MVP performance. He ended the day with 113 yards rushing on 18 carries with another 126 yards in the air on 8 completions and no interceptions. He also punted once.
Early in the second quarter, Fighters extended their lead to 10-6 on a field goal and looked to be taking control of the game before Moses Wiseman made one of the plays of the game with a fumble recovery. The turnover eventually turned into a 17 yard, So Min Jie touchdown run, giving Phoenix a 13-10 lead going into the half.
“We were trying to confuse the quarterback,” Wiseman said, “our D-linemen were able to put pressure on the QB and I just finished the play.” The play could have been ruled an incomplete pass, with Fighters QB Nishino clearly starting his throw when, with the defense swarming, the ball tumbled forward out of his hand. Red and blue jerseys pounced on the ball and when the dust settled the ruling was Phoenix ball. After the touchdown, Wiseman was in on another big stop before Fighters simply let time expire on the half.
At the start of the second half, Nichidai took the ball 65 yards on 7 plays for a touchdown. RB Kawakami got 2 of his 55 total rushing yards on the TD run and American Derick Williams got them to the 2-yard line on one of his 9 carries. Williams said, “In second half they gave me the ball and I warmed up and started feeling it. Got into my groove a little bit. It felt good.”
Williams, Kawakami and So Min Jie were a big part of “wasting the clock in the third quarter,” as Williams called it. Up 20-10 after the first possession of the third quarter, these three ran another 7 minutes off the clock on the next possession. That led to a field goal and a 23-10 lead.
Fighters got their running groove late in the third quarter. WR Maeda picked up 26 yards on an end-around and Nishino followed that up with 12 and 21-yard rushes of his own. Bronson Beatty had a TD saving stop before the end of the quarter but Fighters RB Yamaguchi finally got into the end zone at the start of the fourth quarter.
The score was still 23-17 late in the fourth when Phoenix looked to be going for it on fourth and 6. Hayashi got the ball in the shotgun, paused and then punted with a roundhouse kick. The ball stayed low but untouched to the 1-yard line where it was downed. With less than three minutes on the clock Kwansei had 99 yards to cover for a TD, and the comeback win.
Fighters ran 12 plays and covered most of the distance before a tipped pass landed squarely in the hands of LB Ryo Kusui. He took the INT back 39 yards before being tackled. When he regained his feet, he flipped the ball in the air and sprinted off the field with one finger pointed towards the sky.
Before the final whistle, with heads hung, in silent procession, tens of thousands of blue clad Fighters faithful filed out of the Koshien baseball stadium. The all red visitors section, down the third base line away from the field, counted down the final seconds and then erupted in ecstasy.
“What a surprise to win it!” MVP Hayashi said after the game. “We’re a different generation. After 27 years without winning it, I wanted the team mindset to be winning and I’m glad we made it happen.” The Phoenix added to their 20 championships and put an end to a 10-game win streak for western Japan teams, in this, the 72nd final.
The college football season ends with the Koshien Bowl, but a new challenge awaits the winner. Nichidai now face X-league Champion, Fujitsu Frontiers in the Rice Bowl on January 3 in Tokyo Dome. The Phoenix are undefeated in the Rice Bowl, but their last win came 27 years ago.
While Derick Williams says, the Phoenix “definitely” have a chance, Fujitsu are a prolific offensive machine, and superlative foe. Moses Wiseman “is looking forward to it. It’s going to be exciting!”
- Tony Chestnut: Dec 17th 2017
Nihon University Phoenix 21 - 17 Kwansei Gakuin Fighters
Photos: Lionel Piguet - Dec 17th 2017: Koshien Stadium