Some nine years ago, we had a finish similar to this one: Three of four teams jockeying for position at the top of the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League standings, and even outmanned Atsugi, residing at ladder’s bottom, gave eventual top-seed Yokosuka everything it could handle in the first playoff round.
But never in the 14 years of the league in its current form have we seen a situation in which both division winners will capture first-round playoff byes by margins as slim as this:
In the North Division, there’s every possibility that all THREE teams could finish the regular season at 3-3, depending on how well a Yokosuka (2-3) squad, in full rebuild mode after duty commitments claimed most of the roster, does against Misawa, which is 3-2 but brought a badly outmanned team south to Yokosuka and got shut out by the Seahawks 34-0 in a game that got called at halftime.
Defending champion Yokota (3-3) can only wait and watch. If Misawa wins by any margin, the Jets finish 4-2, clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, with Yokota hosting Yokosuka in the first playoff round on June 22. If the Seahawks win, and depending by how much … we break out the tea leaves, Ouija boards and crystal balls to try to divine the actual point differential and determine who finishes where.
The South Division is more cut and dried, but no less close. Kadena’s regular season is complete at 3-3, while Foster and Hansen are each 2-2 with one game remaining, Saturday’s contest at 2 p.m. on Camp Hansen’s parade deck. Whoever wins captures the division and a first-round bye. Regardless, Kadena hosts the loser in the first round on June 22.
Important to note here that there is no room in the schedule for Hansen and Foster to make up their scheduled April 27 game that was canceled due to lack of field availability. Hansen wanted a May 29 makeup date; Foster could not play on a week day, and neither team had a corresponding bye week the rest of the season. The season must end July 13; the playoffs begin on June 22 and continue with the division title games on the 29th, leaving the South champion a needed two-week window to arrange transportation to the North Division champion’s site. The North champion hosts the Torii Bowl in odd-numbered years, the South in even-numbered years. The teams notified commissioner Joe Howell, who replied, “Press on,” via e-mail on Monday.
Following is each team’s playoff possibility with one game left in each division:
Misawa Air Base (3-2)– Leads North Division. Can clinch division title and home-field advantage throughout playoffs with win Saturday at Yokosuka. Is 1-1 vs. Yokosuka but currently trails Seahawks 46-15 in point differential; holds head-to-head tiebreaker edge 2-1 with Yokota.
Yokota Air Base (3-3) – Regular season complete. Currently second in North Division. Playoff fate rests with outcome of Saturday’s Misawa at Yokosuka game. Clinches first-round host rights if Misawa wins at Yokosuka; a Yokosuka win makes division team 3-3. Holds head-to-head tiebreaker edge 2-1 over Yokosuka, trails Misawa 2-1 in head-to-head competition.
Yokosuka Naval Base (2-3)– Currently third in North Division. Will play on road throughout playoffs with loss Saturday to Misawa. Forces three-way divisional tie at 3-3 with win over Misawa. Is 1-1 vs. Misawa, but currently leads Jets 46-15 in point differential; trails Yokota 2-1 in head-to-head competition.
Kadena Air Base (3-3)– Regular season complete. In virtual three-way tie with Camps Foster and Hansen for division lead. Cannot clinch division title. Will host first-round playoff on June 22 against third-place division team.
Camp Foster (2-2)– In virtual three-way tie with Camp Hansen and Kadena Air Base for division lead. Can clinch division title and first-round playoff bye with win Saturday at Camp Hansen. Will play on road throughout playoffs with loss at Hansen.
Camp Hansen (2-2)– In virtual three-way tie with Camp Foster and Kadena Air Base for division lead. Can clinch division title and first-round playoff bye with win Saturday over Foster. Will play on road throughout playoffs with loss to Foster.
Got all that? There’ll be a pop quiz in 10 minutes.
So, just who will win Saturday’s games?
Let’s say, I think I think that Foster has too many weapons on offense – on paper – for Hansen to handle. Then again, the Wolfpack got badly outgained twice this season by a Kadena offense that repeatedly banged on the Hansen end-zone door but couldn’t smash it in. Bend-but-don’t-break defense. And whoever scores touchdowns must go for two points; Hansen’s parade deck doth not possess goalposts. Anything can in a game like that.
As for Misawa at Yokosuka, the route for North teams playing road games, specifically roading to Misawa and the Jets roading southbound, has been significantly challenging. Misawa edged Yokosuka at home 15-12 on May 11, preceding the aforementioned 34-0 road rout at Yokosuka two weeks later. Yokota pounded Misawa 33-6 at home on May 18, two weeks before falling 40-30 on the road at Misawa in a game called with six minutes left due to player safety. The common denominator for road teams? Having to ironman it, with anywhere from 12 to 16 players in tow. If the same thing happens at Yokosuka, who knows who will win?
It looked like Saturday’s game at Kubasaki High School on Camp Foster was all Kadena’s. Cory O’Cull had just hit receiver Dishon Harvey, in perfect stride, for a 53-yard touchdown pass with just 97 seconds left, and Emanuel Griffin’s much-debated two-point conversion run (did he cross the line before the ball popped loose, or didn’t he?) put Kadena in front 20-19.
Turned out, that was more than enough time for Foster’s veteran quarterback Sanford James to mount a comeback drive of his own. On an evening in which James would go 14-for-22 for 225 yards, throw for three touchdowns and run for one of his own, the 200 or so fans in attendance would remember something else entirely.
It was fourth down and 10 yards to go, Foster ball at the Kadena 39, clock running after James gained 2 yards on a keeper (why didn’t the Bulldogs burn their final timeout?). James sent the kitchen sink in the form of five receivers downfield, scrambled to avoid trouble, then uncorked a high and deep throw toward Maurice Jones. As classic a Hail Mary situation as it gets.
Up went Jones, a Kadena defender draped all over him. Down he came with it just across the goal line. Foster bench erupts in a Vesuvius of celebration. James’ extra-p0int kick makes it 26-20. Seven seconds left.
All that punctuated the best South Division game of the season. By far.
The difference between prior games, is that each side found ways to finish drives, more consistently and efficiently than in weeks past. There was spark in each side's offense, more of a spring in each side's step. Each side probed the other's defense for a weakness and took advantage, as good teams do.
Saturday's was a game that either side could have won. A game in which the loser should not hold head down in shame, but high, knowing the Dragons pushed the defending South champions to the hilt.
James showed once more why he’s one of the league’s premier quarterbacks. Not merely the numbers – he racked up 259 yards of total offense in addition to placekicking and punting – but it’s easy to see the confidence his teammates have when he’s on the field.
Get a body on Foster’s No. 1, somebody. Talk about a dangerous receiving weapon.
Remember well last season when James went down with an Achilles’ tendon injury, and Bulldogs coach Gerald Sharber – who had last played at Western Kentucky in 1998 – suited up and quarterbacked Foster to its third Torii Bowl in four seasons. Sharber was back at it Saturday, but not under center; he dressed out as an inside linebacker, and even recovered a fumble for the Bulldogs.
Kadena could have folded its tent after the first 16 minutes, 45 seconds of the second half – after not possessing the ball for even one third-quarter offensive snap – and Foster surged in front 19-6. Jones snagged a 17-yard scoring pass, then James pooched an onside kick covered by the Bulldogs’ Dakota Dussault. James then ran 4 yards for a score.
The Dragons showed much heart and wasted no time making a game of it when they did finally get the ball. Their next drive almost derailed when Kadena fumbled the ball away, but the Dragons got it back just as quickly on the next play, thanks to Colt Kehlenbeck’s fumble recovery. That set up Griffin, he of the 79 yards on 13 carries, for an 8-yard scoring run, the second of his two TDs, which preceded Harvey’s catch and touchdown run with 1:37 left.
And even after falling behind with seven seconds left, Kadena had one last gasp in it, a 23-yard post pass to Devon Cheatham plus a couple of laterals. But no Music City Miracle nor a Cal vs. Stanford redux was in the cards for the Dragons.
Hard to believe that Cal-Stanford play took place 30 seasons ago. It inspired a poem: “It was Moen-Rogers-Garner-Rogers-Ford-Moen, and the only thing that slowed them was Tyrell on trombone.” Imagine if the Dragons had been able to pull off something similar on Saturday? Let’s see … “It was Cheatham, Harvey, Avery, Harvey, King, Crowe … watch those Dragons go, go, go!”
Perhaps I typed a bit too soon, at least where Yokota is concerned, that teams ill-equipped to run spread, read-option and run-and-shoot offenses should tamp it down and try something more sustainable and basic, such as full-house power running games that boosted Yokosuka to all those titles in the 2000s.
Darone Frierson, nicknamed B-more for his ties to the city of crabcakes, has enjoyed a red-letter season, living large in the air, passing for a league-high 15 touchdowns, seven to deep-threat Lamon Irvin and six to Robert Harris. Frierson has also rushed for three touchdowns. By the grace of his arm was Yokota able to stay within 10 points at Misawa on June 1 in the shortened game. Frierson has also run for three touchdowns.
But more than the number of touchdown passes has been their length. All but two of those touchdown passes went for 25 yards and longer (TDs of 3 and 5 yards to Harris in the 33-6 win May 18 over Misawa were the only ones not in double-figure yards). Three of Irvin’s catches were for 65 yards, two in Yokota’s 33-6 win Saturday over Yokosuka, and Harris has caught “bombs,” as we used to say in the playgrounds, of 70 and 75 yards.
Say this for the Seahawks – they, too, could have folded their tents when a good 70 percent of the team left Yokosuka on duty commitments. Fact of life, as I say repeatedly: USFJ-AFL players are hired to defend the country, not play football.
Life goes on, Seahawks coach James Price said. Instead of suspending the team’s operations, which he very easily could have, Price became part coach, part recruiter, banging on office doors of the 25-something commands at Yokosuka Naval Base, an effort that yielded 10 guys who’d not played football before, but were willing to join the nine or so remaining veterans to ironman the rest of the season.
They might end up like the aforementioned Atsugi White Dolphins lo’ those years ago, last in the division and one-and-out in the playoffs. Then again, they might not. It’s why they play the games on the field, not on paper.
Whatever happens, the last few weeks of this season should prove more than just a little interesting.