Actual football to analyze! A gift both wonderful and dangerous!
On one hand, we now have 187 plays worth of evidence to try to predict how the rest of the season might play out. Evidence that’s more meaningful than endless depth chart speculation and spring/fall practice report parsing.
But week 1 can be deceptive. Last year, 3-9 South Carolina beat 11-3 North Carolina. Portland State upset a Washington State squad that would challenge for the Pac-12 North title. A historically awful Hawaii team would upset Colorado. In a sport defined by weirdness, the first week of the season always has more than its fair share. The problem is that you can’t be sure what’s weird until much later in the seasons, when teams reveal their true abilities.
So: was this game an accurate reflection of Cal’s (and, by extension, Hawaii’s) true abilities? It’s a critical two-part question.
If Hawaii is roughly the same team this season as they were in 2015, then it would be hard to see Cal’s Sydney Cup performance as anything other than ominous. If Hawaii’s new coaching staff has restored the Rainbow Warriors to a basic level of competence after the disastrous Norm Chow era, then maybe a 51–31 win is about what you would expect. It’s certainly not significantly different from what Vegas was predicting.
Offensive player of the game
It’s always nice when the pick is blindingly obvious. Chad Hansen, come on down! 14 catches in a single game ties Hansen with Chris Harper for 3rd place in Cal history behind Dameane Douglas (15) and Geoff McArthur (16 vs. Stanfurd in 2003). If this game is at all indicative of his importance in the passing game, then Hansen will likely challenge for a place high on Cal’s single-season reception list as well. Certainly it’s likely that the younger pass catchers will grow in prominence as they gain experience—but I’ve always been curious to see what kind of numbers a dominant WR could put up in the Bear Raid, and we might see that this year.
Charting Davis Webb
I’ll be honest, on first viewing I wasn’t super impressed by Davis Webb and it’s certainly true that it was a pretty vanilla, low-risk offensive game plan from Cal. But after charting every throw that Webb made (including a couple that were erased by penalties) I was much more impressed with his showing. Without further ado:
The final results?
Davis Webb threw highly accurate passes on 75% of his throws, marginally catchable balls (think Kenny Lawler–esque extensions) on 19% of his throws, and utterly uncatchable passes on just 6% of his throws. That’s pretty darn good.
True, he started off rough, with a bunch of iffy-to-bad downfield passes. True, he took a couple sacks that were probably avoidable, and that will have to be improved before Cal faces more challenging pass rushes. But I think those are pretty minor quibbles compared to what went well.
Webb’s biggest plus? His dead-on accuracy on short throws. Now, I realize this is something we’ve come to expect from quarterbacks, but I graded harshly on short throws. For all of Cal’s quick screens to work, they require excellent ball placement—on the hands, leading the catcher in the direction he’s supposed to run—for them to be successful. And Webb consistently hit his receivers in the right spot to allow them to turn a 1-yard pass into a gain of 5+ yards.
Are those plays exciting? No, not really. But the screens that Cal runs are critical constraint plays of Jake Spavital’s version of the Air Raid, and they exist to ensure that defenders play wide outs honest. Offenses that can easily execute their constraint plays set themselves up to make defenses pay in other ways down the line. I’m looking forward to seeing how Cal does that in the future—against tougher opposition—and I think Davis Webb has the accuracy and decision making to make it happen.
12 meaningful possessions, 6 touchdowns, 3 field goals, 3 punts, zero turnovers.
This is about what you would want to see against a team like Hawaii. Cal drove into the Hawaii red zone in 9 of their 13 possessions (including the end-of-game drive that I removed from the listing above). Cal only had one 3-and-out, and the offense more or less did what it wanted to for the vast majority of the game.
It’s worth noting that one Cal scoring drive was sustained by a Hawaii penalty on a punt. I like it when it’s the other team making awful special teams mistakes.
It’s an annual Sonny Dykes–era tradition to hear coaches talk about how they want to put more emphasis on the run game. Of course, Cal has never been anywhere near a 50/50 run pass balance under Dykes and if the Hawaii game is any evidence, this year will be no different.
According to the box score, Cal attempted 54 pass vs. 35 runs . . . except the ratio is really 57 vs. 32 thanks to two Hawaii sacks and one Davis Webb scramble. That’s 64% passing vs. 36% running, or a nearly 2-1 ratio, which is actually higher than 2015, when Cal passed the ball on 58% of available downs. Seeing the ratio increase makes me think that passing more was a response either to something schematic Hawaii was doing, or to try to get Webb and the passing game safe reps against the weakest team on the schedule, or maybe because Aaron Cochran was out injured.
A gigantic red flag
6.7 yards/play allowed.
Last year, against a schedule of mostly mediocre MWC competition, Hawaii averaged 4.85 yards/play on offense. Against Cal’s defense, they gained almost 2 more yards/play.
Last year, Cal’s defense allowed 6.1 yards/play over the entire season, a mark that was good for 10th in the Pac-12.
If Cal had allowed 6.7 yards/play over the entire season last year, they would have ended the year between North Texas and Ball State at 117th in the nation, and ahead of only Rutgers, Texas Tech, and Kansas amongst Power 5 teams.
Eventual improvement in downfield coverage
Admit it—you were alarmed when Hawaii scored back-to-back 1st quarter touchdowns, with Ikaika Woolsey finding open receivers all over the field. Woolsey started the game 8–12, and had open receivers on a couple of those incompletions.
I was alarmed too. I knew that Cal would struggle to get much of a pass rush (although I was hoping to see more against a team like Hawaii), but I hoped that Cal would show solid coverage skills, particularly when they kept 7 or 8 players back in coverage. The start was rough.
But I think the Bears got better as the game when along sticking with Hawaii’s receivers. Woolsey went just 9–21 the rest of the way and Cal ended up collecting 5 pass break ups. Darius Allensworth was expectedly solid, but Marloshawn Franklin and Evan Rambo had solid showings as well.
Sometimes the opponent beats themselves
Hawaii functionally committed four turnovers, and I don’t think Cal had a ton to do with any of them. Cam Walker got an interception when Woolsey threw behind an open receiver. Trey Turner got a fumble recovery on a kick-off when the Hawaii returner made the bad decision of leaping to avoid a defender while holding the ball away from his body. Luke Rubenzer got another fumble recovery when Saint-Juste lost the ball for no obvious reason trying to break through the line. That plus a goofy leaping penalty on a punt gave Cal the ball back, with excellent field position each time.
Now, look at these two stat lines comparing the Cal offense and the Hawaii offense:
6.7 yards/play, 26 first downs, 8-14 on 3rd down, 1-1 on 4th down
7.1 yards/play, 30 first downs, 7-16 on 3rd down, 2-2 on 4th down
Those two lines look . . . well, identical isn’t quite right, but they’re really, really similar. If Hawaii doesn’t have a variety of unforced blunders on offense and special teams, it’s entirely possible that this game would have been a shoot out that could have gone either way.
Now, Hawaii was a really bad team last year, so it’s not surprising that they would make critical mistakes. The problem is we all know that most of the teams left on Cal’s schedule won’t make those same mistakes. And while Cal played a pretty darn clean game, they won’t play clean the entire season. This defense is going to have to start making more plays of their own—and soon.
Hawaii averaged barely 20 yards/kick off return and didn’t get off a punt return. Meanwhile, Matt Anderson nailed three (short) kicks and Khalfani had some solid kick-off returns. Not only did Cal’s special teams not make any bad plays, but they actually contributed a handful of positive ones!
For whatever it’s worth, Hawaii’s special teams last year were mediocre, and their biggest weakness was kick returning, so Cal’s performance isn’t necessarily a sign that a corner has been turned. But even taking a weakness and turning it into not-a-weakness would be an important step.
How big is Klumph’s leg?
Cal’s punter attempted 4 punts, although one was cancelled out by a Hawaii penalty. None of them went longer than 39 yards. However, it’s worth noting that the majority of his attempts probably weren’t really going for distance because they were from midfield. His pop-up kicks did result in no returns and none of them got particularly lucky bounces. I think the jury is out on whether or not Klumph can consistently boom kicks 45+ yards downfield, but early returns on hang time to prevent returns are promising.
Coaching/Game Theory Errata
Two easy 4th-down decisions
4th and 1 from the Hawaii 39, 4th and 2 from the Hawaii 25—two easy decisions, two easy conversions, two 1st-quarter touchdowns that were pretty important considering that Hawaii was matching Cal score for score. It’s nice that in both situations, I was 100% confident that Dykes would keep his offense on the field and that no hesitation was shown—no dithering over play calls, no wasted time outs, just quick conversions.
I personally would have gone for it when Cal faced a 4th and 3 from midfield early in the 2nd quarter, but it was a more marginal decision anyway.
Cal secured, with relative ease, one of the two games on their schedule that would be completely inexcusable to lose (sorry Oregon State!). That’s good.
Cal was nearly matched on a per/play efficiency basis by a team that finished 0–8 in the Mountain West last year. That’s bad.
Cal secured a win with a very vanilla playbook and flew home with no injuries of significance. That’s good.
Cal simply doesn’t have the talent and depth in their defensive front seven to dictate terms to the worst team on their schedule. That’s bad.
Cal looks like they have the talent necessary to win crazy offensive shoot-outs, which we kinda figured they would need before the season started. That’s good.
You get the idea. For as unpredictable as college football is, sometimes teams are exactly as you might expect. With one game’s worth of evidence, despite a pretty significant amount of personnel changeover on both sides of the ball, it looks like we’re going to have another all-offense, no-defense season of Sonny Dykes air raid football.
While San Diego State is busy playing (and presumably beating) the New Hampshire Wildcats, Cal will have two weeks to get back on West Coast time and figure out how to get better. I think coaches, players, and fans are likely all in agreement that improvement will be needed to compete with a very tough schedule.