Date & TIme: October 24th, 2009, 2:00 MST
TV: Versus (HD)
Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah
All-time series: Air Force leads 14-11
Last meeting: 2008, Utah 30, Air Force 23
Utah will be playing its first home game in nearly a month. Hard to imagine this to be true, but after a bye-week and back-to-back road contests against Colorado State and UNLV, the Utes return to Salt Lake for a nice home stand.
It's this home stand, the next two weeks, that could define Utah's season.
They enter at 5-1. One win away from bowl eligibility. This start is second to 2008 as the best under a Kyle Whittingham coached team. But all could be for naught if they fail to beat the Air Force Falcons. A loss here would certainly take them out of conference contention and put a damper on what has thus far been a fairly decent rebuilding season.
Because of this, the Falcons probably pose the biggest test since Oregon. Though at home, recent history dictates these games are never easily won by the Utes. Why should this year be any different?
In reality, it probably won't be. Air Force has shown to be a fairly decent team this season, albeit one with a scattered offense. Utah also has not made things easy in many of their five wins, which suggests we might be in for a barn burner this week.
Of course, one thing seems to be certain - these games are hardly predictable. So predicting a close contest does seem a bit futile.
With that said, there are reasons to believe a close game is in the cards.
For starters, history. I went over this briefly above but it can't be understated. Utah and Air Force generally always play close games. It's just what they do. Though the Utes have won the last five of six against the Falcons, each victory has been by a fairly small margin. An average of four to be exact. Utah's largest margin, 14, came in 2004 and in a game that was back and forth a bit before the Utes eventually pulled away.
But this isn't 2004. Utah hasn't had an offense willing to completely dominate an opponent since and though their defense might be better than some recent defenses, it doesn't mean they're immune to the Falcons' option. If anything, that's what has made Air Force a thorn in Utah's side for so long. It surely isn't their defense, which the Utes have managed 30+ points against in all but two of the last six games.
That's where the game's biggest factor lies, in my opinion. I have enough confidence in Utah's defense to do just enough to shut down the Falcons (that seems to be their mantra as of late against AFA), but how well can the up and down Ute offense move against these guys?
Well Air Force is sixth in the nation (first in the Mountain West) in points given up at 11.9. That's pretty remarkable when you consider they gave up 22 points per game last year. A pretty stark decrease in that department.
Beyond their ability to hold the scoring down, they rank second in yards given up per game at 267. Their pass defense (total yards through the air per game) is first in the conference, while their run defense is third.
Looking at this further, they held Navy - a team that averages almost 37 points per game - to 16. That happened on the road. The most points they've given up this season was 20, which happened twice - both losses.
So why are the Falcons at 4-3 with a defense that stifles so well? Because their offense has struggled against better opponents. In those three losses, they scored 13, 13 and 17 respectively. Not numbers that will win you many games. It's those offensive problems that have ultimately been their undoing.
But they're not playing just another team. They're playing Utah. A Utah team that has been ineffective in defending the Air Force option for years. Even last season - when the Utes kept their offense in check statistically - they still gave up 23 points. Only two other teams managed to score more points against the '08 Utes (Oregon State and BYU, by one). Can we expect anything different this time around?
I honestly don't know. The Falcons didn't look good at all on the offensive end last week against Wyoming (only ten-points), but we seem to do things differently here at Utah.
With how good Air Force looks on defense, I think this game will be similar to 2005. Expect the Utes to grind it out and win in a very low scoring game.
Utah wins if...They cut down on the penalties. There were too many against the Rebels and against a better opponent (you know, like Air Force), it'll cost you.
Air Force wins if...They force Utah into turnovers. That's their kryptonite right now.
What will happen...I think the Utes buckle down on the turnovers. Whittingham won't allow this issue to persist. With this being the first home game in nearly a month, the crowd will be pumped and so will Utah. Like I said, though, it'll be a low scoring game due to both defenses. But the Utes have more talent and seem to know how to beat the Falcons now (even if it is closer than it should be). Because of this...Utah wins 20-14.
Let's hear your predictions.