SDSU head coach Rocky Long's 3-3-5 is a complex scheme with a multitude of blitzes and man coverage on the back end. Littrell countered the man approach with an old Air Raid staple - the mesh route - on five different occasions, resulting in four completions.
The above play diagram comes from Oklahoma's 1999 playbook. Air Raid co-creator Mike Leach served as the Sooners' offensive coordinator that year and one of his running backs was Littrell, who rushed for 231 yards and seven touchdowns on 37 carries.
While the mesh route is effective against both zone and man coverages, it is particularly potent against man as it utilizes shallow crossing routes and often creates mismatches by forcing linebackers to cover running backs.
UNC ran its first mesh route on 3rd-and-2 late in the first quarter. The Tar Heels are set up in a 3x1 formation with Quinshad Davis alone on the right side. Tight end Kendrick Singleton is lined up on the LOS atop the trips grouping to the left.
As soon as the ball is snapped, Singleton and Davis are taught to push upfield one step and then set the mesh (cross) at roughly five yards.
Depending on the specific play call, the two players running the mesh will know which one runs underneath. On this particular play, Davis runs underneath. Note how SDSU's boundary corner is following Davis while the middle linebacker is tracking Singleton.
The value of the mesh can be seen in the following screenshot. By setting the mesh depth at roughly five yards, the receivers run right along the second line of the defense while also bringing the umpire into play. It can also create confusion, as seen below as the cornerback is staying with Davis while the linebacker sits down awaiting Davis to cross.
Leach has taught his receivers for two decades to high-five each other in practice to ensure they were close enough on the mesh. Littrell employs a similar method to maintain the appropriate spacing.
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams's first read here is the outside linebacker, who follows Romar Morris into the flat. With the corner pulled into the middle of the field and the outside linebacker forced to move up to cover the flat, the intermediate portion of the right side of the field will be wide open. Against zone coverage, the crossing receivers are taught to find a hole and sit down. Against man coverage, the receivers are taught to keep running to stretch the field.
The outside linebacker moves up to cover Morris, while the middle linebacker and boundary corner are both covering Davis in the middle of the field. As a result, Singleton is wide open for the first down pass play.
With UNC trailing 27-21 early in the fourth quarter, Littrell went back to the mesh on 2nd-and-10. The following play is very similar in design to the one from the Oklahoma playbook - the primary difference being that the A-back (Ryan Switzer) is brought out of the backfield and lined up in the slot on the left side.
UNC is once again in a 3x1 formation with Davis on the right side and Singleton at the 'Y' on the left.
San Diego State blitzes a linebacker, forcing Morris to stay at home to block in pass protection. Davis and Singleton once again take a step forward before beginning their mesh route. Note how the boundary corner and safety charge forward for their man coverage responsibilities.
With the outside linebacker blitzing and the deep safety 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, Williams once again has an easy read as Singleton is running toward open real estate on the top of the screen. Due to the man coverage, the defensive backs are having to run laterally across the field while also avoiding the umpire, who is once again setting a nice pick.
Singleton makes the grab without a defender within five yards of him. UNC's biggest play against SDSU's man coverage was a vertical throw - the 91-yard touchdown from Williams to Mack Hollins - but Littrell attacked the man scheme more by stretching the Aztecs horizontally.
Below is another example of the mesh in action against SDSU - this time in GIF form - as a 3rd-and-4 call in the third quarter yielded a first down and another reception for Singleton.
Photo Reel: Mesh Route
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