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Opponent Offense Preview: California

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Quarterback Davis Webb is keeping Cal’s Bear Raid buzzing.

NCAA Football: California at Southern California Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Cal did its best Oregon impression this off-season, sweeping up a graduate transfer QB in Davis Webb from Texas Tech. He was originally committed to Colorado before changing his pledge to the Bears, who were eager to replace the production of #1 overall pick Jared Goff, and keep the Bear Raid offense humming along. Webb has certainly fit the bill of “plug-and-play” this season, and has seamlessly kept the offensive wheels turning.

As spectacular as Webb has been this season (more on that below), the rushing attack has given him a lot of help. Cal’s entire motivation on offense is to throw the ball; however, they rush for a solid 170 yards per game and 4.9 yards per rush. Straight up, those numbers are nothing too impressive, except when you consider that Cal runs the ball more than only 3 teams in the entire country, and two of them are Texas Tech and Washington State. Cal rushes less than 40% of their plays, but manages to get production when they do.

Let’s examine the offense closer and see how it performs through the air and on the ground (taking a different approach this week to offense previews):

The Basics

Cal’s offensive coordinator is Jake Spavital, who was previously at Texas A&M. In short, he knows how to run a potent offense. In his brief coaching career, he’s worked under Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin, Dana Holgorsen, and Kliff Kingsbury - some of the brightest offensive minds in college football, and each running his own variation of a pass-first spread, or “air raid” offense. Here is a great breakdown and guide to the offense that head coach Sonny Dykes brought over from Louisiana Tech.

These types of offenses usually require a high volume of either throwing or passing. As in, to achieve the scoring and yardage outputs, you need a lot of inputs, or plays. This is easily achieved with an up-tempo offense that wastes no time getting a play off. Cal does this exceptionally well, running an average of 88.8 plays per game. In their last three games, that figure has jumped to an astonishing 97 plays per game. At home, where they’ve generally played their best, they slow things down a bit, “only” running 84 plays a game. In all this, they are still quite efficient, ranking 31st in overall offensive efficiency at Football Outsiders.

Through the Air

QB Davis Webb: 2,914 yards, 29 TDs, 8 INTs, 62% completion, 7.02 yards/attempt.

WR Chad Hansen: 59 receptions, 770 yards, 8 TDs.

WR Demetris Robertson: 35 receptions, 469 yards, 6 TDs.

WR Melquise Stovall: 39 receptions, 396, 3 TDs.

WR Vic Wharton III: 24 receptions, 267 yards, 1 TD.

In short, Davis Webb has been one of the best QBs in the conference, if not the entire nation. He’s putting up the gaudy statistics a talented, experienced QB should put up in an air raid system, and is playing his way into being another highly drafted Cal QB. He’s directing an offense that throws for 365 yards a game, and also ranks in the top 50 in passing efficiency. In his last four games, he’s been very impressive, throwing for 11 TDs and only 3 INTs while completing over 60% of his passes. He absolutely tore Oregon apart to the tune of 5 TDs and 325 yards while not completing a throw for more than 17 yards. That’s called “dink and dunk,” my friends, and Cal is very good at it. Webb is exceptional at dropping back and picking apart defenses with the quick passing game.

When he drops back, he’s also been protected quite well, only getting sacked 14 times all season. That 1.75 sack-per-game average is exactly level with UW. This speaks to good offensive line play, made even more impressive since Cal passes so much, there’s more opportunity than usual for the defense to pin its ears back and get into the backfield.

Cal is a dangerous Red Zone team as well. They score on nearly 90% of possessions inside the 20-yard line, and on 36 attempts have scored 21 touchdowns. More than half of those have been passing. Deep into opponent’s territory, they also love to use misdirection play-action passing, like they did so well against Oregon.

The wide receivers are playmakers as well. Chad Hansen is the headliner, leading the team in yards, TDs, and receptions. He was one of the hottest receivers in the country before injuring his hand a few weeks ago and has been out. He is expected back this Saturday against the Huskies. Even if you look at his stats through six games as if they were for nine games, it’s still really impressive what he’s done with a brand new QB. Most of the rest of their WR production is coming from freshmen duo Melquise Stovall and Demetris Robertson, who have been super in their first years in the Pac-12. Robertson is the bigger body and deep threat, while Stovall is more a shifty slot guy.

It’s an explosive and deep group overall: Hansen has a 49-yard TD, Robertson a 59-yard TD, and Jordan Veasy and Bug Rivera have one each for 33 yards.

On the Ground

Khalfani Muhammad: 93 rushes, 613 yards, 2 TDs.

Tre Watson: 90 rushes, 484 yards, 2 TDs.

As you probably know by now, Cal likes to make their name with the air attack. However, their run game is nothing to scoff at. As I noted previously, they don’t rush the ball much, but have two solid running backs that complement the pass game. Muhammad has only two TDs on the year but averages over 6 yards a rush, while Watson is the receiving threat out of the backfield. Watson also has only two scores on the ground, but has three receiving TDs, including a 74-yard TD grab. The OL shines here too, as it does in pass protection, not letting free runners into the backfield very often. Cal ranks in the top 40 in tackles for loss allowed, with less than six per game.

They can score on the ground in the red zone, too. While they have 12 red-zone passing TDs, they also have 9 rushing TDs, displaying good balance on short fields.

Vic Enwere was the other big time runner in this group (who had a great game against the Huskies last year) but was lost for the season due to injury.

Final Thoughts

There isn’t a lot that’s unimpressive about this offense, but if there’s one area of potential weakness, it’s wasted drives. When examining the percentage of drives that result in a touchdown or at least one first down, the Bears rank 54th nationally. For an offense that runs this many plays, that’s understandable. But facing a Washington defense that makes you earn every single yard (fancy way of saying the Husky D has exceptional yards-per-play numbers), they could struggle here without getting a few big plays.

It’s also worth noting that the Golden Bears have struggled against top defenses. Consider: against Arizona State, Oregon State, and Oregon, they put up 46 points per game. On the other hand, against Utah and USC, they’ve only mustered 26 points per game. Washington certainly is in the Utah/USC defensive caliber, so the Dawgs might be able to find success, though the health of Joe Mathis as a pass rusher is a key concern. Him being back and healthy will really make the defense much more effective.

Chad Hansen potentially being back is scary. Stovall and Robertson are fantastic players, but I’ll take the Washington secondary against two freshmen. Throw the 6’2” Hansen into the mix and it makes things much trickier. I think Cal will have some success on offense, but ultimately Washington’s defense will have the upper hand.