Cal’s performance in its 51-31 win over Hawaii Friday was about as far from perfect as the distance between Berkeley and Sydney.
However, the Golden Bears showing some warts against the Rainbow Warriors in ANZ Stadium could serve them more over the course of the 2016 season than a near-flawless effort would.
Hawaii played Cal to a near-stalemate through the first quarter-and-a-half, sitting just a field goal behind the 20-point favorite Golden Bears midway through the second period. A series of errors unraveled the Rainbow Warriors’ chances in short order, and a three-point game ballooned to three scores by halftime.
But the quick turnaround wasn’t entirely the byproduct of stellar Cal play.
Costly turnovers and defensive miscues left Hawaii susceptible to a deluge that won’t come often in Pac-12 Conference play. Sure, the Golden Bears capped the 2015 regular season by capitalizing on exactly those kind of woes against Arizona State.
But with Washington on the schedule? Utah? Stanford? USC? A schedule lined with much more disciplined defenses and savvier offenses looms.
Cal will also see much nastier offenses than the Rainbow Warrior side that posted 31 points. The defense was always going to be an issue in 2016, with Cal losing more than half of its starters from the 2015 lineup on that side of the ball.
However, the Golden Bear front seven showed firsthand that it will need to make huge strides if it has any chance against loaded rushing offenses around the Pac-12.
Ultimately, though, there’s more positive Cal can take away from Australia, even in the negative.
Head coach Sonny Dykes has a unique opportunity from opening its season on Week 0, one that goes beyond visiting a country on the other side of the planet. A two-week layoff awaits the Golden Bears upon their return stateside, a luxury their opponents Down Under don’t get.
Cal’s next contest takes it to San Diego State for a rare road game against a Group of Five. And the Golden Bears don’t see just any Group of Five opponent; San Diego State is the defending Mountain West Conference champion, returning a roster capable of not only repeating in the league, but contending for a Top 25 spot.
Worse yet for Cal, head coach Rocky Long builds the Aztecs’ identity around a stout defense. The missed tackles that vexed Hawaii in Australia won’t carry over for the Golden Bears’ first game stateside.
However, Dykes and his staff have two weeks to review the film from Friday’s contest, studying what worked — and will work against stiffer defenses, like San Diego State’s.
There’s plenty to build from in the season-opening win, starting with quarterback Davis Webb. The Texas Tech transfer looks like a capable replacement for No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jared Goff, passing for four touchdowns and rushing for a fifth to pace the prolific Golden Bear offense.
Webb wasn’t perfect himself; he took a sack on third down to kill a third-quarter drive that started deep in Rainbow Warrior territory, for example. But those hiccups in an otherwise strong outing temper expectations, giving Webb a place from which to build ahead of the meat of the Golden Bears schedule.
Another building block: wide receiver Chad Hansen. With Cal losing its top six pass-catchers of 2015, one of the most pressing questions facing the Golden Bears for 2016 was its receiving corps.
Hansen and Webb demonstrated an undeniable chemistry, manifesting in 14 catches for 164 yards with a couple of scores for the receiver. He nearly matched his 2015 total of 19 grabs, and already surpassed his career-long mark for scores.
With 10 players catching passes, the bear-raid offense looks to be in good hands.
No, Cal was not perfect in its debut. But things can go the opposite of what we expect in the United States when you go to the Southern Hemisphere — was The Simpsons right in its assessment of toilets draining backwards in Australia? — and for the Golden Bears to take care of business was the right, first step.
Now Dykes and Co. get plenty of time to iron out the imperfections.