While the final score of the 2015 Big Game surprised few, the game did not unfold as expected. Cal won the time of possession, had seven more first downs than Stanford, had more scoring drives than Stanford, and out gained the Cardinal 495-356. Unfortunately, Cal's inability to capitalize on long drives as well as one disastrous kickoff coverage meant that the Axe will stay at Stanford for another year.
Of course, part of Cal's success between the 20s was by Stanford's design. During Stanford's recent run of success, they have been characterized by a defense that forces the opposition to drive the length of the field without giving up big plays. This was the case against Cal. Cal executed well and took advantage between the 20s of Stanford's conservative game plan, but this kept the clock moving and shrank the game and number of possessions, both of which favor the Cardinal's style of play. Cal needed to capitalize on their trips to the red zone, but could not. Stanford, on the other hand, scored twice from within the Cal two yard line, and created big plays - Christian McCaffrey's 49 yard reception (great running, poor tackling, but not necessarily a defense out of position), his 98 yard kickoff return (terrible coverage, great blocking), and Bryce Love's 48 yard reverse (great execution by Stanford). Both teams scored five times - the difference in the game was that three of Cal's scores were field goals. Drops, uncharacteristically inaccurate throws, and an inability to win the line of scrimmage marked Cal's red zone failures.
Cal's lone red zone success came on a smash concept, one of the most used route combinations in football. The classic smash concept is a hitch by the outside (#1) receiver, and a corner route by the inside (#2) receiver. The basic read for the quarterback is simple: if the cornerback stays with the hitch, throw to the corner. If the cornerback fades with the corner, throw the hitch. Against man coverage, look for leverage by either receiver.
On this play, Cal used a slight variation of the concept. Jared Goff made a play action fake, which was immaterial on this play, as Stanford was already blitzing everyone save for defenders in man coverage. And rather than running a hitch, Maurice Harris ran a quick out. The concept remains the same - a high low read on the cornerback.
Stanford tried to disguise a blitz on the play, but pre-snap, Goff only needs to know if Darius Powe can gain outside leverage on the man who is covering him. By alignment, this outside leverage looks promising. This is expected, and is most likely why Tony Franklin called the play. Cal has scored often in the red zone on quick slants, and nearly did earlier so in this game. Franklin rightfully expected that the Cardinal would be wary of such routes, which is why he opted to attempt the (longer throw, higher level of difficulty) smash combination on this occasion.
Watching Cal execute on this play - and up and down the field for much of the night - is depressing given the result of the game. Cal has proven time and time again that they can execute well enough to score against any team, but they have lacked consistency. Consistency is the mark of a great offense, and a lack of consistency hurts in the biggest moments. For much of Stanford's current Big Game winning streak, their talent advantage was clear cut. This year was perhaps more painful for Cal, because the loss can be pinned squarely on a lack of red zone execution, betraying what was a strong effort in many aspects of the game.