Date & Time: September 20, 2008, 2:00 MST
Radio: KALL 700
Location: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colorado
All-time series: Air Force leads 14-10
Last meeting: 2007, Air Force 20, Utah 12
A lot has changed since the Utes lost to the Falcons a little over a year ago. While it felt like Utah's season had quickly slipped away, they were 0-2, the Utes have solidly rebounded, going 12-2 since and have cracked the top-20 nationally. Not bad. For Air Force, they went on to win nine games and then watched as most their offense graduated. Now the two teams meet again, but both in dramatically different shape than they were in 2007. For Utah, that isn't a bad thing, but for the Falcons, their youth still continues to be a question mark.
For both teams, Saturday's game will be a measuring stick, especially for Utah, who very well could face their toughest test of the season thus far. The Utes are ranked, rolling and already being mentioned as a possible BCS Buster, however, that won't mean a lick if they leave Colorado Springs 3-1. And though Utah is the better team with more experience, it is possible. The Falcons are very well coached, good at home and always seem to play Utah tough, which is why they're the only conference team Utah has a losing record against.
Air Force hasn't really played a tough first three games, defeating Southern Utah, Wyoming and Houston, but they are playing well. On offense, Shea Smith is not the type of quarterback you expect to carve up Utah's stout secondary, as he's only completed 48% of his passes and has thrown the ball only 28 times. What Air Force will rely on is their traditional option offense and running game, which should be a concern for the Utes.
Kyle Halderman is the team's leading rusher, averaging 79 yards a game, while Shea Smith is second with 76 a game. Their ground game leads the conference at 358 yards a game, which is only second to Navy -- another option team -- in the country. If Utah is going to win, they will have to clamp down on the option and Falcon running game and force them to pass. Which won't be easy, however, Utah does have the 15th best run defense in the country, at least in terms of yards per game allowed. That could prove to be a problem for the Falcons, since it's very unlikely they can produce anything through the air.
The Falcons' defense so far this season isn't bad, but it isn't great, either. They give up about 106 yards per game on the ground and 187 yards through the air. Again, not terrible, but far from great. In fact, their pass defense only ranks 4th in the conference, so it shouldn't be a surprise if Brian Johnson airs it out a bit.
In their last game, Air Force defeated Houston 31-28, yet didn't play a flawless game. Even after opening a 31-7 lead in the 3rd quarter, they had to hang on, as the Cougars rolled back and nearly tied the game before losing by 3. In that game, Houston had 534 yards of total offense, with 362 in passing and 172 on the ground. This was a game where the Falcons lost nearly all the statistical categories, yet still managed to win. But that is Air Force football, they are very disciplined and will wait for an opening to beat you. It's interesting to point out that in that game, Smith had zero completions. Zero. They won by dominating with the run, bulldozing all over Houston and you should expect them to at least try the same against the Utes. Of course, the Utah defense probably is a bit better than that of Houston.
If Air Force plays like they did in most of the second half of their game against Houston, Utah will win. I don't expect that to happen, but I also don't expect Air Force to put up 380 rushing yards on Utah, either. So this game will come down to a few key plays, probably on special teams. That means no more fumbled returns and I don't think that can be stressed enough. Thankfully, I don't expect another special teams performance like what we saw against Utah State and if there aren't those issues, Utah should win. They have more talent, experience and most importantly, confidence. Plus, I think they remember last year's stinging defeat and should be fired up.
This game will be tight, I don't expect a blowout and won't predict one. The Utes are good, the Falcons are good, but Utah is probably better. The fact it's in Colorado Springs helps Air Force and they should be fired up to play a ranked opponent. But I don't see that being enough to overcome Utah's advantages. I expect the game to be close through three quarters and Utah will pull away in the fourth, winning 35-21.