SYDNEY — The beer ran out in some sections of the Olympic stadium, but most of the 61,247 spectators at Saturday’s U.S. college football opener in Sydney between California and Hawaii appeared to be enjoying their American “gridiron” experience.
The favored Pac 12 conference’s California Golden Bears from Berkeley across the bay from San Francisco were 51-31 winners. It was a midday start so that the game could be televised back to the U.S. in prime time on Friday night, and was played under sunny skies and with light winds.
Tailgate parties weren’t a big part of the day — there aren’t a lot of ground-level parking lots close to the 83,500-seat stadium — but fans feasted on two-foot-long hotdogs and copious amounts of French fries and nachos. Asian and middle Eastern food from nearby catering kiosks also featured, reflecting the multicultural makeup of the neighborhoods around the former Olympic precinct of Homebush in western Sydney.
The concession stands, however, appeared to be unprepared for the crowds. Stadium officials said 70,000 cups of beer were sold, but one spectator tweeted he waited in line for an hour, while another said the reason there were so many empty seats is that most of the fans were in a queue somewhere.
Many of the Aussie fans were “barracking” more for the underdog Hawaiians than the more-fancied Cal side.
“Really, they were cheering for us more?” asked Hawaii’s first-year coach Nick Rolovich. He even admitted to noticing some traditional stadium features like the Kiss Cam, supplemented often by Karaoke Cam and Dance Cam — the highlight of the last feature was a young boy with a Cal Bears t-shirt busting some Michael Jackson-like moves on the giant stadium scoreboard.
A local marching band provided halftime entertainment, supplemented by 30 members of the Hawaii marching band. Among the glitches was the person who sang the Star Spangled Banner mistakenly replacing one word for another during the American anthem. And one of the referees made a not-so-flattering remark about someone on the sidelines, but forgot his stadium microphone was turned on.
The star of the show on the field was California quarterback Davis Webb, who made quite an impression in his first game as a graduate transfer from Texas Tech.
Told he had 441 yards passing — 38 for 54, with no interceptions — Webb said dryly: “Yeah, it was OK, I’m just glad we got the victory. Hawaii threw a few blitzes at us and our offensive line played well.”
Hawaii was without three key players for unspecified disciplinary reasons. A Rainbow Warriors spokesman said just before the game began that safety Daniel Lewis Jr., linebacker Jerrol Garcia-Williams and tight end Metuisela Unga were not with the team Saturday.
Cal coach Sonny Dykes said it was a good starting point for his team.
“There is still plenty of work to be done, but overall we played a very good game and never let them get back into it,” Dykes said.
Coach Rolovich also did his bit to enliven the contest for the new fan base. After losing the coin toss and Cal decided to receive, Hawaii tried an on-side kick that the Bears were able to recover at midfield. It was quite the way to start the new college season.
“I wanted to make sure Australian fans got to see an onside kick, and in my first game, too.” Rolovich said, smiling. “But seriously, I hope it sends a message that we are going to play aggressively and won’t back down.”
The Hawaii entourage went straight from the stadium to the airport to get a scheduled 9 p.m. flight back to Honolulu. Cal’s charter left Sunday afternoon for its 14-hour flight back across the Pacific to San Francisco.
Things won’t get any easier for Hawaii when the Rainbow Warriors play Michigan at the Big House next weekend in Ann Arbor. Cal has a bye week before taking on another Mountain West Conference opponent, San Diego State, on Sept. 10 in San Diego.
This version corrects Cal State to Cal in 5th paragraph.