When Utah and Air Force meet, strange things often happen. There have been close losses, come from behind victories, blown leads and yes, even an overtime thriller. This game had nearly all of that, including a big Utah victory.
The Utes entered Saturday's contest 3-0 and ranked in the top-25. However, only the insane would not have been nervous prior to this game. The Falcons, for whatever reason, have always been a thorn in Utah's side and even when the Utes do win, it's almost always closer than any fan would like. So even though most of us didn't want to admit it, we all knew this would be Utah's toughest game to date and it proved to be just that, as the Utes had to claw and fight their way to victory.
While the Utes weren't perfect in this game, they showed me some good things and that's where we'll begin.
Utah's defense defended the option better than I've ever seen before. Air Force could not move the ball at all on Utah, which is a rarity, as generally they roll up an ungodly amount of offensive yards against the Utes. Saturday, they were held to 191 total yards. Yes, that is not a misprint, the Utes held them to less than 200 yards of total offense on the day. They also clamped down on the run, as Air Force only managed 53 yards on the ground, less than either Darrell Mack or Matt Asiata. It was the worst offensive performance for the Falcons in over 20 years and will go down as probably the best collective defensive performance of the season for Utah.
But beyond the defensive success, the solid ground game (Asiata and Mack both broke the century mark) and the great offensive play calling, I was most impressed with Utah's ability to not fade. Far too many times in the past, when faced with adversity, the Utes basically folded up shop and laid down for their opponent. We've seen it over a half-dozen times since Whittingham took over, but this Saturday, even when it looked as if everything was crumbling beneath them, they kept their cool, battled back and won in the final seconds in a game they very well could have lost. And maybe if this were 1998, they would have. But they kept their composure and because of that, Utah is 4-0 and still in the BCS hunt.
I'll get to the bad in a second, but before that I want to also discuss how Utah improved greatly in the second half. The first half, actually just the 2nd quarter, the Utes looked sloppy, undisciplined and lost, but by the 3rd quarter, they appeared to be a totally different team. I don't know what Whittingham told them at the half, but the team came out, executed well, cleaned things up and outscored the Falcons 21-7. Yet it was the bad that forced them to battle back.
I think Utah played extremely well for three quarters. If you isolate the second from the rest of the game, the Utes outscored Air Force 30 to 7 and had that been the final score, this would have been a near perfect and very impressive performance by the Utes. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case and because of this, we fans were treated to a heart attack inducing finish, as well as a hair-pulling period of play to end the first half. Utah stumbled with penalties, Brian Johnson went down far too many times behind the line of scrimmage and Utah turned the ball over three times. Two of those turnovers resulted in Falcon scores and came from Johnson fumbling the ball after receiving pressure. Had he not fumbled, the Falcons would have had a hell of a time getting on the scoreboard.
But this plays into the major issue with this offense, Brian Johnson still does not know how to read a blitz. He looked oblivious at times when the Falcons pressured him and because of that, it put Utah in the position to come from behind for the victory. But, as I mentioned above, that seemed to change in the second half, as Johnson looked far better and the Utes didn't turn it over once. They also dramatically cut down on the penalties in the second half, which made it possible for two huge touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Anytime you beat Air Force, it's a big win. The Falcons are a good team and they should win seven or eight games this year, so this win will look pretty solid at the end of the season. But it's hard to not think what could have been had the Utes not played so sloppy in the second quarter. Regardless of all that, however, when it looked like they were going to lose it and wilt like we've seen so many times in the past, they got it together and rallied. That's a sign of a good team and a huge positive heading into an easy Saturday against Ron McBride, who while a good coach for Utah, often managed to lose games similar to Saturday's. This time, though, Utah was on the winning side for once.