Date & Time: Sept. 8, 2007, 4:00 MST
Radio: Kall 700
Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium, SLC, UT
All-time series: Air Force leads 10-13
Last meeting: 2006 (Utah 17, Air Force 14)
This is a big game and one that could essentially define Utah's year. It's never good when your season rides on the second game, but that's pretty much the predicament Utah finds itself in right now. And they better go into this knowing a loss would be a devastating blow for a program that already has taken a licking. But it won't be easy, as the Falcons have been a historically tough opponent for the Utes.
Air Force brings to Salt Lake a completely revamped offense, a new coaching staff and hopes of building on last week's victory over D1-AA South Carolina State. This will also be the Falcons first test of the season and their chance to prove to the Mountain West that Air Force football is back and ready to perch itself atop the conference once again. A victory over the Utes in Salt Lake City could do just that and if past meetings hold any merit, this is a very winnable game. That is not good for Utah, who have struggled -- even during their best seasons -- against Air Force.
The only silver lining in playing the Falcons early is that they could still be adjusting to Troy Calhoun's revamping of the offensive schemes. And if their game against South Carolina State is any indication of what they will run, Utah won't be defending against the option much Saturday night. That's both good and bad, since Kyle Whittingham defenses have never been capable of defending the wishbone. However, Air Force also has a pretty good quarterback in Shaun Carney and he's very capable of airing it out. And as much faith as I have in Utah's secondary after stopping Oregon State's passing game last week, I also concede that they weren't really tested. Oregon State's two quarterbacks played terrible and with that being their first game, you've got to think that played a big part in their struggles. Carney is a senior and doesn't need time to adjust.
Since I haven't seen much on Air Force, they're pretty unknown. That plays in favor of the Falcons, because I suspect they didn't really reveal their entire offense against South Carolina State last Saturday. Utah's coaching staff will probably be left guessing as to what this staff will do. Will they have a balanced offense, will they introduce the wishbone more than they did last week, or will they try and carve up Utah's secondary by utilizing their experience at the quarterback spot? These questions will have to be answered by the coaching staff and I truly hope they can, or it could be a long night for the Utes.
On paper, even without Brian Johnson and Matt Asiata, Utah should win. They have better athletes, bigger lines and a strength of a home field. Yet that hasn't really helped them in the past, because as I've said, these games have been close. Since 2000, the biggest margin of victory by either team was 14 and that in 2004 for the Utes. That was Utah's closest game of the season and the past two years, Utah's won by 3-points each time, including last year's victory on a game winning field goal as time expired.
One of Air Force's strengths is their conditioning. These players are expected to be well conditioned early on and while that seems to be an issue toward the end of the season, it's rarely a factor at the start. They won't get tired, which might explain why no lead is safe when going against the Falcons. This concerns me more than anything, because they are so good at completely wearing down teams.
This game scares the hell out of me and I fear the Utes could be in for a world of trouble. They never play Air Force well and as beat up as they are from last week's loss, it could be the perfect storm for an ugly loss. This is not an overstatement, I truly believe this game is the biggest in Whittingham's career. A loss could doom Utah to a losing season and most likely ruin any good vibes the program had left after 2004. A win though, could turn the tide and get us back to respectability. For that to happen, Utah will need Tommy Grady to play a good game and that might be asking too much.
Even though Grady arrived at Utah with a ton of hype, he has yet to live up to it. Last season, in limited time, he looked utterly lost and in the second half against the Beavers last Thursday, he wasn't much better. But maybe that's because he was never tabbed the starter and that could change now that he's had an entire week to prepare. Plus, all signs point to Whittingham changing the game plan toward Grady's style. No more running him out of the option, which I think is a good idea. If Utah's going to win, they will need to play to the strengths of Tommy Grady and not run an offense that is best suited for a quarterback like Brian Johnson.
But the success of Tommy Grady isn't the only thing Utah needs for a win to happen. They will also have to find a running game, something that was nonexistent against Oregon State. That will be hard, since Matt Asiata is gone for the season, but it looks like Whittingham has decided to pull the redshirt of junior Darrell Mack. Mack looked good at the end of the 2006 season, but I'm not sure how he'll look Saturday. One thing is for sure though, he will need the offensive line to block and create holes if he's going to find any success. That should be easier than it was against Oregon State, as the Falcons line isn't nearly as good as that of the Beavers.
Utah is favored, but I think this game could come down to a final play. That always makes for good football, but only if your team is on the winning end. Utah can win, but it will take a great all around effort. If the team bounces back and pulls out a victory against the Falcons, the feel of this season will be dramatically different. Hopefully, they can do just that.
Utah wins if...Tommy Grady doesn't look nearly as bad as he did against Oregon State. Grady needs to connect with receivers outside of short, 5-yard passes. That offense will not succeed and if the Utes are going to get more than 3 first downs -- what they had in the second half against OSU -- he will have to be more consistent in his passing game. Utah will also need Mack to step up and while I don't expect him to dominate, if he can flirt with 70 yards rushing, the Utes could be in good shape.
Air Force wins if... Shaun Carney works Utah's secondary and Tommy Grady struggles the entire game.
Keys for the Utes...
- Find a running game. No running game and Utah could be in a world of trouble.
- Finding a passing game. Grady steps up and has a decent night and the Utes should be in good shape. He plays like he has in every game as a Ute and that will probably be too much for Utah to overcome.
- Keep Carney from passing at will. Utah's secondary wasn't really tested Thursday, but I have a feeling Calhoun is going to do just that. While Air Force didn't pass much against South Carolina State, I expect that to change Saturday.