It is no secret that Tony Franklin continues to be one of the preeminent offensive innovators in the game. This creativity will, hopefully, help to give the Golden Bears an edge when the competition is less lopsided than it was against Grambling State. Run pass options have grown in popularity in recent years, in part because offensive linemen are allowed to be up to three yards down the field on a forward pass. Thus, an offense can call for a run and a pass on the same play, with the quarterback choosing the best option based on the defense's pre snap alignment and expected coverage/run fits. The following Jared Goff to Kenny Lawler touchdown was a run pass option that put the defense in conflict and took advantage of its alignment and rules.
Grambling State's defense was also creative. They often brought pressure with their front six and played man coverage in a straight line of five defensive backs across the field. Here, Goff is expecting more of the same. Each of his four receivers has a man head up, and Grambling State is crowding the line of scrimmage with potential rushers. The situation (near the end zone) is also a typical man/blitz situation. Goff's focus is on the circled defender, who lines up over Stephen Anderson on the play. If Goff believes that the defender will move toward the line of scrimmage or in any way cover Anderson in man coverage, Lawler will have space to the inside on his slant route, behind that defender. If Goff suspects the defender will play zone coverage, the defender will have leverage on Lawler's route…but this will leave a soft edge for Cal to exploit with the outside zone option. Because of the defense that Grambling State primarily plays (man to man), the situation (goal line), and the circled defender's pre-snap alignment (on the goal line, not deep enough to take away Lawler's route by alignment), Goff chooses the pass option.
As expected, the defender in question is focused on Anderson. The defender's momentum is forward - and he is the deepest defender on the field. The end zone is filled with space. All Lawler has to do is gain an inside release, and Goff has to deliver an accurate ball. Lawler is firing his feet to get the cornerback off balance - a skill that has always been emphasized in the Air Raid system. Of course, this comes down to a one on one matchup between Lawler and the cornerback. If the cornerback is great, perhaps he covers Lawler on the play. But it gets back to a basic tenet of spread football: getting athletes in space in one on one matchups. Cal has the quarterback and the receivers to win many of those matchups.
As Goff releases the ball, we see that Lawler has gained the inside leverage. Anderson is breaking down to block the optioned defender, who has approached him. Anderson's blocking is another clue that this is a run pass option (and not just a play action pass). Two Cal offensive linemen are blocking downfield - but not beyond three yards. Also note the defenders converging on Goff. Cal makes this play look easy, but it is not. It takes great execution, skill, and confidence. If Goff was unsure of his read, was a less accurate thrower, was tentative under pressure, or if Lawler had trouble beating press coverage, this play does not work.
As Lawler catches the ball, we can see the space that Cal created by taking advantage of Grambling State's expected defense. The play design opened the middle of the field, and Lawler won to that space. If Grambling State had hung back to better help with such a pattern, Lasco's path to the end zone would have been that much easier.
Also note Darius Powe in the slot to the left of the formation and Trevor Davis as the wide receiver to the top of the screen. Powe also runs a quick in breaking pattern, and Davis runs a fade. Goff could have thrown to either of these receivers as well. By re-watching the GIF, below, one can see that both of these routes were well covered. Such is the benefit of having an experienced quarterback - the quarterback position is about making correct decisions and making them look easy. Goff did so with pre-snap reads and knowledge of matchups on this play. He had confidence that Lawler would beat his man to the inside, and Lawler obliged.
The end result is an "easy" Lawler touchdown. On first glance, it looked like an old fashioned play action pass to a slant route. But next time you see Daniel Lasco break free for a touchdown on what looks like a typical outside zone run play, look again. You might see Kenny Lawler running a slant route to the back of the end zone, and you'll know why.