Coming off its first bowl appearance since 2011, California went into its 2016 campaign with an offensive overhaul after losing quarterback and No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff and its top six wide receivers from 2015.
Despite the personnel turnover, Cal and its Air Raid offense is 2-1 to open the season after the Golden Bears beat Hawaii 51-31, lost to San Diego State 45-40 and most recently beat then-No.11 Texas 50-43 on Saturday.
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes is in his fourth year with the program and has already turned a team that went 1-11 in 2013 into an 8-5 team last season with Goff at the helm of the offense.
The program’s seven-win turnaround from 2013 to 2015 is tied for the second best in school history behind only an eight-win improvement from a 2-10 mark in 1946 to a 10-1 record in 1948.
“They are very well coached, you know coach Dykes I know very well,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said at his Monday press conference. “Does a great job coaching his football team. Very well coached in special teams and offense and defense. They’ve had close games, they lost to San Diego State, similar type game we had last week.”
Last season, Cal ranked third nationally in passing offense, eighth in total offense and No. 17 in scoring offense in 2015, with all numbers ranking second in the Pac-12.
Through three games this season, Cal is No. 2 nationally in passing offense, averaging 453 yards per game behind the arm of Texas Tech grad transfer quarterback Davis Webb. The No. 1 passing offense in the country is Texas Tech, led by junior quarterback Patrick Mahomes who threw for 540 yards against ASU last week.
Mahomes beat out Webb for the starting job at Texas Tech in 2015, which led Webb to transfer to Cal in May to replace Goff, who was selected by the Los Angeles Rams with the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Webb was previously committed in January to play at Colorado, but decided Cal was a better fit, especially with the addition of first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital.
Spavital is from Washington State head coach Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” coaching tree, as is Dykes and Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who coached Webb at Texas Tech.
“Jake Spavital worked with me at Tulsa, so he’s got his own little flare that he puts on it (the Air Raid),” Graham said. “It’s a little different. I’m impressed with their physicality. They've got a two-back set. No. 99 (sophomore fullback Malik McMorris) is 300 pounds at fullback so they are very physical. I was very impressed with them. Their physicality and heart that they showed against Texas you know, very similar scheme (to Texas Tech). I think they are one of the top two offenses in the country passing the football.”
Dykes’ pass-heavy offense is similar to the Red Raiders' offense, where Webb threw for 5,557 yards, 46 touchdowns and 22 interceptions over three seasons. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound signal-caller started the majority of the games in his first two years before Mahomes took over the starting job.
This season with Cal, Webb has 106 completions out of 164 attempts for 1,359 yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Obviously he (Webb) is a veteran,” Graham said. “Very tall and difficult to sack and get down. You get a hold of him and he still gets the ball off. Very good quarterback. You can tell he has really gelled with his players.”
For Graham and ASU, this won’t be the first time they will have to match up against Webb.
Webb was Texas Tech’s freshman starting quarterback when the Red Raiders picked apart ASU’s defense in a 37-23 victory in the 2013 Holiday Bowl.
Earning Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP honors, Webb threw for 403 yards and tied the Holiday Bowl record with four touchdown passes.
Not only has ASU had trouble with Webb in the past, but last year the Sun Devils crumbled against the Bears in their season finale. Surrendering a 21-point lead, ASU lost 48-46 to Cal on Nov. 28 and Goff played arguably one of the best games of his career.
Goff, a third-year starter, led Cal to six consecutive second half scoring drives and had five straight touchdown drives of at least 70 yards and a 69-yard drive to set up the game-winning field goal as time expired. Goff finished with 30 completions on 51 passing attempts for a school record 542 yards and five touchdowns.
ASU failed to record a single sack against Goff on the night.
“We got our hands full with those guys, obviously it came down to a last second field goal last year,” Graham said. “(This year) they’ve improved every week and I don’t look past anything.”
In addition to losing Goff to the NFL, the Bears also lost their top six receivers from last season: Kenny Lawler, Darius Powe, Bryce Treggs, Stephen Anderson, Trevor Davis, and Maurice Harris. Lawler led the Bears in receiving last season with 52 catches for 658 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Cal junior wide receiver Chad Hansen is the most experienced receiver left after the overhaul of the Bears' wide receivers corps.
“The Hansen kid, the receiver, I am really impressed with him,” Graham said. “Love his passion and heart he plays with, competes with.”
Through three games, Hansen has 40 receptions for 546 yards and five touchdowns. His 182 yards per game average is more than three times the average of Cal’s next leading receiver (freshman Melquise Stovall at 52.7 yards per game).
Junior college transfer wide receiver Jordan Veasy has only seven receptions through three games, but is averaging 19.4 yards per catch and has two touchdowns.
“(Wide receiver) Jordan (Veasy) is a junior college player, first year in our program and Davis is first year in our program so those guys are starting to figure each other out,” Dykes said. “Get more on the same page. I think you are starting to see a lot of the newcomers, a lot of the younger receivers starting to become more comfortable.”
Heading up Cal’s rushing attack are three experienced rushers, junior running back Vic Enwere, who has carried 38 times for 255 yards and two touchdowns so far this season, senior running back Khalfani Muhammad who has carried 22 times for 128 yards and one touchdown and junior running back Tre Watson, who has carried 22 times for 68 yards.
The Bears are No. 10 in rushing offense in the Pac-12, averaging 127.3 yards per game.
“The running backs are very good,” Graham said. “They have three solid running backs. Different guys. One is a big downhill bruising tough back and then they got the speed, a guy that is really, really fast and all three of those guys are really good receivers and what makes it so difficult is they make you go sideline to sideline. They got really good personnel.”
And while Cal’s offense has been flourishing, its defense has been struggling, especially in the run game. The Bears are last in the Pac-12 in rushing defense at 296.7 yards per game and are last in scoring defense in the conference, averaging 39.7 points allowed per game.
Against Texas, Cal made some defensive adjustments at halftime that ultimately secured the win against a top-ranked team, but still allowed 307 rushing yards on the ground.
Senior safety Khari Vanderbilt said on the Cal media call Sunday night the team studied the differences between San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey and Texas running backs junior D'Onta Foreman and sophomore Chris Warren in order to best keep the run game in check.
However, Foreman still ended up taking 21 carries for 157 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to Warren carrying the ball 18 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns as well.
Vanderbilt was second on the team with tackles against Texas, recording 10 and one tackle for loss. Junior linebacker Raymond Davison led Cal in tackles with 12.
“The defense staff put us in position to make plays,” Vanderbilt said. “This plays they let us line up and just play. We didn’t change much. We were just out there and had fun and it paid off. It was a lot more fun out there, a lot of guys were making plays and we just look forward to doing it against Arizona State and the rest of the teams in the conference.”
Dykes said the defense specifically made some adjustments on some of the fits in the run game as well as in the alignments on how they were going to play certain sets. Dykes also credited defensive coordinator Art Kaufman for rotating players and keeping players fresh headed into the fourth quarter.
“I was real impressed with how hard they (Cal’s defense) played,” Graham said. “Impressed with (junior safety) Luke Rubenzer, I think he is leading their team in interceptions. Those guys play hard and obviously they were playing against a very good Texas team, very big, physical offense. I thought they did a great job at making adjustments at halftime and I think they play with a lot of heart and that’s what I see when I watch them.”
Rubenzer was originally recruited as a quarterback to Cal and served as a backup his freshman season before switching over to the defense in 2015. In the Bears’ game against ASU in 2015, Rubenzer recorded his first start and had a career-high 12 tackles.
Heading to Tempe on Saturday, Dykes said he has had the opportunity to change some things and start opening up the playbook -- as he did against Texas -- and looks to continue doing so into conference play.
“As you start to develop tendencies you can develop some things to offset the tendencies and so that’s one of the things we did with two games under our belt,” Dykes said. “We wanted to show some things and have a counter off of that as well so as we continue into our playbook, we’ll continue that.”