It was a strange start to the season for California – playing in Australia, on a 17-hour time difference, a week before every other team in the country, with a quarterback not named Jared Goff.
Of course, it went smoothly enough. Graduate transfer Davis Webb was brilliant in a 51-31 dismantling of Hawaii, completing 38 of 54 passes for 441 yards and four touchdowns while running for another. In the process he established a favorite target, Chad Hansen, who hauled in 14 catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Simply put: The offense was fine without Goff – as if should have been, given that Hawaii was the opponent.
It’s the defense that will be the concern this coming Saturday, when California travels south to San Diego State. The Bears gave up 31 points to Hawaii, a threshold that the Rainbow Warriors eclipsed in exactly one game last season, against UC Davis. Making matters worse, Michigan whacked Hawaii 63-3, showing what teams of legitimate quality will do to Hawaii.
San Diego State possesses legitimate quality, having won the Mountain West Conference championship last season by going unbeaten (9-0) in league play.
More about Hawaii, though: Even the Rainbow Warriors managed to run all over California, amassing 248 yards and three touchdowns on the ground against the Golden Bears. San Diego State, meanwhile, cobbled together 170 yards on 41 carries in a 31-0 rout of New Hampshire, including a pair of touchdowns. That number should only rise this Saturday.
Donnel Pumphrey, who ran for nearly 1,700 yards in 2015, carried 21 times for 98 yards and a score. Rashaad Penny added another 33 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t exactly a prolific display of rushing, but Cal doesn’t exactly have a prolific ground defense, either, and San Diego State has developed a reputation as one of the strongest running schools, having surpassed 200 yards on the ground in 11 of its last 12 games.
Pumphrey, a dark horse Heisman candidate, has been the main reason for that. Since 2013, no FBS running back has accumulated more yards (4,370) or touchdowns (46). Nevertheless, San Diego State coach Rocky Long was left somewhat underwhelmed by his team’s ground performance against New Hampshire.
“The real issue was we blocked the right guys, but we didn’t go on and block at the second level,” he said.
“In order to get a running back started, you have to be able to block the line of scrimmage, get them into the line of scrimmage and then pick off some linebackers in order for him to get where he can make some people miss and maybe break a long one.
“We didn’t block at the second level good enough to cut off linebackers and safeties. We believe that can be fixed by improving their fundamentals and techniques.”
What’s a bigger concern for Cal – scoring points or keeping them off the board? Sure, California’s offense looked smooth against Hawaii – but it was Hawaii, and San Diego State will present a much tougher test. The Aztecs limited New Hampshire – granted, an FCS team — to 70 yards through the air and just 71 on the ground, helping them secure their 11th consecutive victory, the second-longest streak in the nation behind Alabama.
Pumphrey was not an issue last year for the Golden Bears, when Cal handed the Aztecs a 35-7 loss, something that hasn’t been lost on the running back.
“When I see Hawaii being able to run the ball the way they did, it excited me and it excites my offensive line,” Pumphrey said. “That’s what we have to do. We get after it with the ground attack. Seeing that makes me pumped up for this game.”
Cal enters the game as 7.5-point underdogs. An upset can be delivered ostensibly in one way: Stop the run game.