Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Across the Sea | by Pat

It was a blast from the past this weekend with Lou Holtz on the Notre Dame sideline, Tony Rice lining up under center, and the interlocking ND on the uniform sleeves. Taking the barnstorming idea to the extreme and resurrecting the idea of an ND All-Star team, the Notre Dame Legends team faced off against Japan National Team in the Toyko Dome in the 2009 Notre Dame Japan Bowl. The Fightin' Alumni Irish won 19-3, giving Lou wins on three different continents.

You can watch the replay of the game on August 10th on CBS College Sports (formerly CSTV) and here is the official recap of the game. Former player Derek Curry even put up two videos on youtube about the game. But thanks to the international readership of BGS, long time contributor Nate provided BGS with his own personal recap of the Notre Dame Japan Bowl experience. An excerpt is included below, but make sure to check out Nate's entire recap here. Nate also provided some excellent youtube videos for those who can't wait two weeks for the broadcast and has a photo gallery with some great shots from the pre and post game parties.

Take it away, Nate...

Saturday morning we took the kids and Mom-in-law out to lunch prior to heading to the Tokyo Dome for the game. We’d seen an NFL preseason game at the Dome a few years ago—Indianapolis vs. Atlanta, with Manning and Vick at QB’s, and I wondered how the crowd would compare. Would Japanese people, even football fans, care about a game against Notre Dame? Would the Japanese National Team be any good? Would they be TOO good, and kill our team of old-timers? The questions weighed on our minds, but the excitement of getting to see ND football overmatched anything else. Amy and I hopped the subway to the Tokyo Dome, and were pleasantly surprised when we got there. The crowd was fairly large for a sport that your average Japanese knows NOTHING about; many Japanese people were in Irish gear: the “Shirt”, Brady Quinn jerseys, and all manner of ND-logo’d apparel. Of course, many were simply football fans getting a taste of what American football was all about, so you saw Farve, McNabb, Brady, and all manner of NFL/other team jerseys as well. As we’d seen at the NFL preseason game, Japanese football fans are a passionate, knowledgeable bunch, precisely because the sport is so unknown in Japan—for them to learn, they have to teach themselves. They really don’t have the chance to be a casual fan, so for every fan who could barely tell the ND team from the Japanese team, there were fans who could diagram a Cover 2 and understood the spread variables the Japanese team ran. Interesting, to say the least. We made our way up to the VIP section, where we were presented with game programs and game jerseys from the ND team. Amy chose #3, a nod to Joe Montana and our hopes for Michael Floyd this year, and I chose #5, hoping I can pull Armando Allen through a 1000 yard season, and because my freshman year Ajani Sanders, an ND Safety who wore #5, lived on my floor in Morrissey. We found our balcony seats on the 50 yard line and settled in. 50 yard line sounds great, until you remember that the Tokyo Dome is a baseball stadium—the 50 yard line is the furthest point from the actual field. It was a decent view, but just far enough away to cause our camera to have some problems (apologies right now for the graininess in some of the pics).

GAMETIME! First, the Japan National Team took the field, in their red jerseys and white helmets. The crowd and their cheerleaders were appropriately enthusiastic, but everyone was really waiting for those Golden Helmets to come streaming out. When the ND team was announced, and the Irish took the field, the smaller American section, filled with player families, expats, and military stationed here, erupted in cheers. Seeing the players stream on the field got me pumped and choked up all at once, I’ll admit. The team captains met at midfield for the coin toss, which Japan won; Japan elected to receive, and the game began. The Japanese took the kick, and got a decent runback to about the 30, I think. And promptly called timeout. Huh? Amy and I looked at her—was Bob Davie coaching the Japanese team? Would this be an indication of their level of play?

The short answer is “no”. After coming out from the timeout, the Japanese put on a fairly impressive display of offense, driving the length of the field, only to be stopped on 4th down deep in Irish territory. The Japanese run a version of the spread, mixing precision passing with shotgun based option. Imagine a team an entire team of scatbacks, and you’ve got what their offense looked like. It was like playing a Navy team that could pass. The Irish D would hold them to minimal gains on 1st and 2nd down, only to give a Japanese WR or RB just enough space to wriggle through to the sticks on 3rd and long. I commented to Amy that it was like watching Urban Meyer’s Utah team—disciplined, precise, and frustrating. WR’s ran exactly 1 yard past the 1st down marker and the QB would hit them to move the chains. Misdirection option plays and shovel passes left their RB’s with open space in front of them. Meanwhile, our offense, a vintage Lou Holtz I-formation option game, had trouble doing much of anything. As the 1st quarter ended with Japan up 3-0, Amy and I looked at each other and thought “uh-oh…”

Of course, to Japan’s credit, there’s was an all-star team of both professional and college players, ranging in age from 20 to 34. For those not familiar with Japanese football, Japan has two leagues: a professional league made up of teams sponsored by corporations, and a college league where most of the major universities compete against each other. Each year the champions of the two leagues compete against each other in the “Rice Bowl”, Japan’s version of the Super Bowl. Could you imagine the Gators winning the NC, and their reward is to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers after the Super Bowl? Crazy, but there doesn’t seem to be too much of a gap between the college and pro levels here in Japan. I’ve seen a Japanese exhibition game featuring players from one prefecture (Japan’s version of a state) playing those from another prefecture, kind of like the Florida-Georgia high school all-star game, and the level of play was…well…they seemed to have fun. It was somewhere around lower high-school level. But the Japanese National team was the best of what they had, and their coaching staff wasn’t a bunch of slouches. They’ve obviously done a lot of work studying the US game, and the spread attack they employed allows their smaller but quick players to get the ball in space and make the most of what they have. I don’t know if any teams in the Japanese leagues play smash-mouth football, but with only 1 300lb’er on the whole team, Japan wasn’t going to grind it out against the Irish.
Notre Dame’s “Legends” team, on the other hand, ranged in age from 23 (Thomas Bemenderfer, the most recent graduate) to 52 year old Kris Haines and 51 year old Joe Restic. The average Irish player was around 30. Quarterback, Tony Rice, just turned 42.

While it was obvious that the actual Notre Dame team of any year would destroy the Japanese team, the collection of volunteer players Coach Holtz assembled was a bunch of players from different eras, different systems, and I’m sure different levels of fitness. Sure, they had tryouts, and I’m sure they all worked really hard to get back to “playing shape”, but many of the team hadn’t hit anyone in a long time. The younger, fittest players were by definition not the best players from their time, as they aren’t on NFL rosters. I don’t say that to disparage them at all—they played their hearts out, but when Ambrose Wooden would start and play most of the game at quarterback, and Brandon Hoyte is the starting full back (yes, you read that correctly, Irish fans), it shows that you’re at the mercy of who is willing and able to volunteer when you put together the roster. Rather than anything negative, I’m extremely impressed with and grateful to the players who volunteered their time and energy to coming over here and playing a game. None of them got paid, nor did the coaches. It’s truly remarkable that this many former players and coaches would give up not only a week in Japan, but all the time spent practicing leading up to it, in order to strap it on one last time for Our Lady. Truly inspiring.