For Brian Burrell, the Fresno State quarterback, the pieces are fitting together more smoothly now than they were three or four weeks ago. Pre-snap, he is making his reads and setting protections, and the results have been posted on the scoreboard against Southern Utah and at New Mexico with the Bulldogs scoring 56 and 35 points and rolling up more than 1,200 yards of offense.
But this week, facing San Diego State and its 3-3-5 defense with a confusing mix of disguises and blitzes, the degree of difficulty multiplies significantly.
Burrell, who will be making his sixth career start and has played only two games start to finish, will be tested by looks he will have seen on film numerous times by Friday. He will also encounter things he hasn't yet seen. That part is guaranteed.
"It's going to be a huge test," offensive coordinator Dave Schramm said. "A lot of what we do, it starts with making sure you're protected. And we'll see something that we have never seen before. You have to make sure you have enough blockers to block them all and then you have to make sure you don't have a running back having to block a defensive lineman, but sometimes the defensive lineman lines up where the linebackers are and sometimes the linebackers line up where the D-linemen are, so it messes with your reads and who is sliding where and which guy the back has got ...
"We just have to be ready to adjust on the sidelines, because as much as we can practice, even if we get the right look, we're not getting the same tempo that it comes when we're playing them."
The Aztecs took advantage of that last season, when it had a bye week and extra time to prepare and add a few wrinkles before playing Fresno State. They threw different looks at quarterback Derek Carr, stuff they had not seen, and the Bulldogs struggled against it. They played their most unproductive first half of the season before adjusting in the second half and eventually winning in overtime.
Fresno State had averaged 29.2 points in the first half of their first six games, but managed only 149 yards on 40 plays (3.7 ypp) and scored only one touchdown at San Diego State.
Carr had completed only 50% of his passes in the first half before finishing 35 of 57 for 298 yards, the fewest he had against a Mountain West Conference opponent last season.
San Diego State beat UNLV in a game played Saturday night and will come to Bulldog Stadium on Friday on a short workweek, but that doesn't change much for the Bulldogs.
"It's always that way, every time we've played them," Schramm said. "And, like I said, you're going to see something that you've never seen before. We can prepare all you want, but it's not like having a crystal ball. We have no idea what they're really going to do until we start playing."
The key for Burrell will be identifying as much as he can, making sure he is protected with time to throw the football.
"It should be fun," he said. "It's going to take a lot of preparation, a lot of film study. They do a lot of things with their defense, have a lot of blitzes, so it's going to be a busy week of preparation.
"The big thing is setting the protection the right way. They do a good job disguising where the blitz is coming from, so as long as we get the linemen blocking the guys that are blitzing and we don't lose our check down, we'll be good. That's the main goal, to get the protection set the right way."
Of course, Burrell said, that is a lot easier said than done.
The Bulldogs' tempo can help them — the faster they can line up and snap the football, the less time San Diego State will have to use its disguise.
"Hopefully, our tempo will have a factor in it," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "But it's about identifying what's going on and identifying coverage and getting the play called quickly. If we can do that, we have a chance to be successful."
"It'll stress you," Schramm said. "It's so different. It's a little like what our defense had to do against New Mexico (and its triple-option offense) last week because it's so different than anything you see all year long and it's so hard to replicate and you get into the game and they're playing it all the time, so they can do it at a high tempo ... we just have to be locked in."