No way through the Canada defense
Canada intercepted a tournament record five passes and ran off 16 unanswered points to end the first half en route to a 33-24 win over Japan in the first semifinal of the IFAF U19 World Championship at Burger Stadium in Austin, Texas.
The victory earns Canada a spot in Saturday's championship game where they will meet the winner of tonight's second game between the United States and Austria.
"We accomplished what we came here to do," said Canada head coach Noel Thorpe. "There were turnovers and mistakes, but I thought we won the battle up front and that was what mattered most."
Japan finished with a 330-264 advantage in total offense but two critical interceptions late in the first half swung the game in Canada's favor before the break and Japan could not recover.
After its first drive was thwarted by an interception, Japan opened the scoring on a three-yard plunge by James Takada on its second possession. The score capped a three-play 50-yard drive set up by a short Canada punt.
"That was without doubt one of the most amazing games I've ever played in," said Canada MVP linebacker John Rush who led the team with 11 tackles. "Japan were hard and they were disciplined. They weren't as physical as Canada (us), but they were so good at their assignments and they ran everything perfectly.
"We stuck in there and made some big stops and we had some big turnovers in key situations. Our defensive line were killing it and they helped block for the linebackers to flow over the top and our whole defense overall played extremely well."
Canada answered immediately with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Keegan Arnyek to knot the score at 7-7 midway through the first quarter.
After forcing a Japan punt on its next series Canada took over at its own 19 but Japan's Yusuke Mine stepped in front of a Will Finch pass on first down and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown to give Japan a 14-7 lead with 3:08 left in the first quarter.
Canada wasted little time equalizing, moving 60 yards in four plays on the next drive and scoring on a 37-yard pass from Finch to Doug Corby with 1:32 left in the opening quarter.
Japan looked poised to retake the lead on its next drive as quarterback Kyogo Kishimura moved his offense to the Canada 7-yard line midway through the second quarter but on third-and-seven a pass from runningback Aruto Nishimura was intercepted in the end zone by Canada's Rees Paterson to end the threat.
The game swung on two Japan possessions late in the second quarter. With 2:16 left in the half Kishimura was intercepted by Jean-Gabriel Poulin at the Japan 26. Team Japan kept Canada out of the end zone but Louis-Philippe Simoneau converted a 35-yard field goal to give Canada a 17-14 lead.
"Too many turnovers," said Japan head coach Takao Yamazaki through interpreter Shinzo Yamada. "We had some mistakes but they played very well."
Japan took over with 55 seconds to go in the half and elected to throw on first down. The decision resulted in another interception, this time by Canada's Pierre-Luc Caron who returned it 22 yards for a touchdown. The extra point snap was mis-handled but Canada led 23-14 at the break.
Canada elected to defend to start the second half and give Japan the wind in the third quarter. Japan took the opening kickoff and moved 46 yards on 11 plays to cut the lead to 23-17 on a 31-yard field goal by Nanami Ariwa.
Canada moved into Japan territory on its opening drive of the half but Finch was intercepted for the second time on the day, this time by Ikuma Mitsuya to end the threat.
Hugo Richard took over at quarterback on Canada's next series and was promptly intercepted by Yuta Shimozuru at the Japan 36-yard line. Japan drove to the Canada 35 before Kishimura was intercepted at the Canada three-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Canada relied on the legs of Richard and Mercer Timmis on its next drive as the duo carried the ball on all seven plays, gaining 77 yards to set Simoneau up for his second field goal attempt of the day. The kick was good from 37 yards as Canada upped the lead to 26-17 with 8:51 left in the game.
Japan quickly answered the field goal, moving 70 yards in seven plays and cutting the lead to 26-24 on a four-yard run by Kishimura with 6:24 left in the game.
Canada iced the game on the next drive, moving 61 yards on seven plays with Richard diving in from a yard out for the final margin.
Satoshi Sagino earned MVP honors for Japan after he totaled 141 all-purpose yards against a stout Canada defense.
"We are disappointed we lost, but now our focus is on the bronze medal game," said Sagino. "Individually, we have had an awesome time (in Austin), but as a team we lost, so we have to concentrate on the next game."