Fresno State was confused the first time seeing San Diego State's unorthodox defensive front, and it almost proved costly.
Rather than having players in a three-point stance like most defensive fronts, the Aztecs linemen stood up near the line of scrimmage and moved around against the Bulldogs.
The look seemed so unusual, it sometimes appeared as if San Diego State wasn't ready for the snap.
But that's all part of the Aztecs' disguise under coach Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 scheme to mask their pressures and baffle quarterbacks and offensive linemen.
Fresno State (2-3, 1-0) will have to figure out how to deal with such deception Friday when San Diego State (2-2, 1-0) visits Bulldog Stadium in a pivotal Mountain West Conference divisional matchup.
"When it comes to our schedule, this is going to be our toughest challenge schematically in blocking movement," Bulldogs senior offensive lineman Cody Wichmann said. "These guys are all over the place.
"They're standing up, walking around. Their schemes are meant to confuse you so you don’t know who you're supposed to block. So you end up double-teaming one guy and another guy gets in the backfield free. It can be tough to block if you're not familiar with it."
A year ago, San Diego State used that unorthodox defensive alignment to surprise Fresno State and create pressure and confusion. The Aztecs nearly pulled off an upset before falling 35-28 in overtime.
Then-Bulldogs quarterback Derek Carr spent much of the night trying to identify the blitzes and communicate with his offensive line. Carr ended up getting sacked twice but was hurried several times, which threw off Fresno State’s timing.
The Bulldogs offensive line also was caught off-guard by the Aztecs' alignments and struggled picking up both the pass block and run block assignments. The Bulldogs did a better job blocking in the second half after making a few adjustments, but Fresno State still finished with just 43 rushing yards.
"They hadn’t really shown any film up to that point of them doing that stuff that year," Bulldogs offensive line coach Cameron Norcross said. "Then they came out and did it the whole game. Early on when we hadn't seen it or practiced it, it was really fast for our (offensive linemen's) eyes and knowing who to pick up and block.
"We've talked about it and gone over it this year, and it's still a tough deal. They've got guys moving around everywhere. We’ve just got to be disciplined in all that we do, find out where their guys are at, identify them early, and we'll be all right."
Should the Bulldogs struggle with their run-blocking, it could put additional pressure on quarterback Brian Burrell to make plays.
So far, the junior has shown more efficiency when he's had a reliable running game to help set up downfield attacks. The Bulldogs have rushed for 661 yards combined in their past two games, the most in consecutive games by Fresno State since 2004.
San Diego State has limited opponents to an average of 115.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 35th in the nation, and has 11 sacks and 25 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Linebackers Cody Galea and Fred Melifonwu each have two sacks, as does defensive lineman Alex Barrett. The Aztecs, however, are without senior linebacker Derek Largent (appendectomy) for the next three to four weeks.
Fresno State's preference to operate without a huddle and at pace could help the Bulldogs prevent the Aztecs from having time to disguise their defensive pressures But the Bulldogs also figure that the Aztecs will regularly send in five or six players to pressure the quarterback.
“Defensively, with Rocky’s 3-3 scheme, they’re very difficult for a inexperienced quarterback to figure out,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. “They create a ton of problems that way. ...
“We’ll try to use tempo to our advantage. When you spread people out and you go fast, they don’t have time to give you different looks to confuse you. You’ve got to get lined up or a big play can happen.”