Japan won consolation for not contesting the world championship for the first time since the competition began in 1999 by winning the Bronze Medal with a narrow 17-14 victory over a resilient Mexico.
The tight battle that was predicted between a bruising Mexico and finely tuned Japan played out as expected as Mexico attempted to force overtime on the game’s final drive and only fell short when a 50-yard field goal attempt by Jose Carlos Maltos was blocked as time expired.
“I knew that it would be a close game, but to tell you the truth I didn’t have a lot of confidence about beating Mexico,” said Japan head coach Kiyoyuki Mori.
Mexico head coach Raul Rivera Sanchez said the decision to line up for the field goal: “The team was very confident with our kicker. He is the best in Mexico. We have seen him kick field goals of 60 yards. We were in the right position to make it.
“I am very proud to represent my country of Mexico and represent this team. We finished in fourth place, so now we return to Mexico and work hard and prepare for the next World Championship.”
Defenses canceled out any hope there might have been of offensive fireworks and were alert to the trick plays favored by Japan. But fans were kept on the edge of their seats by an intriguing battle.
“Our defensive line did a great job,” said Japan’s coach Mori. “After watching the Mexico-USA game, we knew that Mexico was a great team, especially the offensive line is so great. We knew we had to stop the run first. I think that was a key moment of this game.
“Of course we wanted to win the championship, but we did not make it. Obviously we are very disappointed. All the teams here are so great. The only thing we can do is our best, so I am very proud of our team.”
Two bruising defenses went to work to keep the first quarter scoreless as both teams punted away their opening possessions before Japan broke the deadlock. Mexico did make some offensive progress, but a 55-yard field goal attempt limped short.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Mexico for leading with the helmet and a pinpoint pass from Tetsuo Takata to Ken Shimizu drove Japan to the Mexico 15.
Takata then saw a hole open up as he dropped back to pass and ran in almost untouched from 15 yards for a 7-0 lead after Daisuke Aoki’s automatic extra point with five minutes to play in the half.
Mexico hit straight back as Diego Viamontes tore off an 82-yard kickoff return down the right sideline behind excellent blocking for a touchdown and Mexico were suddenly level at 7-7.
Japan were quick to reply as Takeshi Miyaki intercepted Rodrigo Perez with 1.36 remaining in the half and a half the distance to the goal line penalty after the play on Mexico took the ball to the 12. Japan tried the same quarterback draw that had brought six points earlier, but this time Mexico was wise to the play and dropped Takata for a loss.
Japan need not have worried as Takata found Naoki Maeda in the endzone for a 19-yard touchdown and the extra point put Japan ahead 17-7 with 8:39 left in the third quarter.
Mexico’s offense was unable to make headway, but the defense stood firm and when Japan snapped the ball in a wildcat formation, ran a reverse and Koki Kato tossed the ball to quarterback Takata, he was halted for no gain. That set up a field goal for Aoki, but the usually reliable kicker pulled his attempt wide from 23 yards.
That was just the inspiration Mexico needed and a long pass from Perez that deflected between the hands of a defensive back and was caught in the end zone by Heriberto Salazar would have produced a touchdown but for an illegal second forward pass on the trick play.
Mexico got the ball back again and earned a first down through a roughing the passer penalty against Japan and Perez scrambled for a key gain that was called back for holding. Remaining calm in the pocket, Perez dumped a perfect pass over the middle to move the chains and then the hurry up offense gave Mexico the touchdown needed to ignite their comeback attempt.
Perez rolled out to the right and found Salazar reaching high at the back of the end zone to cut the deficit to three points with a 10-yard touchdown grab.
With more than three minutes remaining, Mexico chose to let their defense halt Japan rater than attempt an onside kick. The clock ticked down to 1:38 remaining before a key third down stop forced Japan to punt and Aoki put the ball into the end zone for a touchback as the bounce favored Mexico.
With no timeouts remaining and only 1.12 to play, Mexico desperately moved to midfield and spiked the ball three downs later with 18 seconds in hand and fourth down looming. Perez scrambled to move the chains and a late hit out of bounds tagged on 15 yards taking the ball to the 34.
Mexico had time for one play before considering attempting a game-tying field goal, but an incomplete pass forced out the kicking until for a 50-yard try. The low kick was blocked and time ran out on the Mexican comeback.
Former NFL Europe standout linebacker Manuel Padilla earned MVP honors for Mexico, while Maeda celebrated Japan’s honor and a third place finish.
Japan vs. Mexico 17:14
Date: July 15, 2011
Stadium: Ernst Happel Stadium
Link: Game Statistics