No team in the Mountain West has given Utah as much of a fight like the Air Force Falcons have done for years now.
If there has been one constant in this ever changing rivalry, it's that each game generally comes down to one or two plays. It's been like that since the 1990s and continues to be like that even though Utah has really eclipsed the Falcons program over the last six years.
No matter how good the Utes are or how bad Air Force looks, each game has proven to be a battle. Yet, even though the margin of victory has been razor thin at times, Utah has lost only once to the Falcons since the start of the 2003 season. That happened in 2007 and fittingly - it was on a last second defensive stop.
That's just how these two teams roll. Throw away the records and even home field because when they get together, the games are never a blowout.
Even in 2004, when Utah wrecked everyone they played, they still found themselves in a dogfight with Air Force. That game they actually trailed 14-0 early and though they put them away earlier than normal, it was still the closest any team came to derailing the Utes' undefeated season.
In 2008, the undefeated Utes needed a last minute drive to get out of Colorado Springs with a victory. Had it not been for Darrell Mack's nine-yard touchdown with less than a minute left, all the magic of that year maybe never happens. No BCS, no Sugar Bowl win over Alabama and certainly no 13-0.
That was a tough, ugly game for Utah. The fact it was close shows just how much trouble Air Force has given the Utes over the years. Statistically, Utah dominated the game. They held Air Force to 191 total yards - one of the worst offensive performances in school history.
Yet three turnovers and a 16-0 Falcon second quarter made this game closer than it ever should have been.
The Utes trailed 16-9 at the break and finally came alive in the second half, outscoring Air Force 21-7.
Of course, one of the closest contests in this series happened last year. Utah entered that game ranked 19th nationally, but had yet to really find any offensive flow. That was obvious throughout the game, as Terrance Cain and crew struggled to produce sustainable drives.
The Falcons actually out-gained Utah 318 to 267 and led 10-6 heading into the second half.
This was a game where it looked like the Utes were going to blow it open in the third quarter when Cain found David Reed for a 91 yard touchdown pass - but it was only false hope. Air Force managed to score the next 6 points the remainder of regulation as Utah struggled moving the ball the rest of the game.
In overtime, it was a dramatic finish. The offense actually came alive and moved the ball well enough to position Eddie Wide for a one yard touchdown run. After making the extra point, the pressure then turned to the defense and they got a huge stop on fourth and one to preserve the overtime win.
It was an exciting finish and one that really illustrated Utah's core problems in 2009. They really had a hard time consistently sustaining anything on the offensive end. They weren't awful, but they weren't anywhere near as good as they have been this season.
So, what changes in 2010 - if anything? Can the Utes finally do something that they have not done since 2004 and win by two or more scores?
I don't know for sure.
What I do know is that the years Air Force has been down (2004, 2005 and 2006), only that 04 team managed a comfortable win. In 2005 and 2006 (both of which were 4-7 seasons for the Falcons), the Utes won by three points each. The latter of which came on a Louie Sakoda field goal as time expired.
So even though the Utes are 6-1 recently, their margin of victory throughout that span is about four points. Less than one touchdown. That's how close this series has been over the years.
The interesting thing about this match-up is that from 2003 to 2005, it was very offensive oriented. Both teams averaged over 30 points throughout that stretch and the games were often track meets, with both teams piling up the points and yards.
That ended in 2006, though. The Utes, as I mentioned, won that game as time expired on a field goal. But they only won 17-14. It wasn't much different in 2007, as the Falcons nipped Utah 20-12 in Salt Lake City.
I've gone over the 2008 and 2009 meetings. Both not very high scoring and both left to the defense more than the offense.
Will that change Saturday?
Utah certainly has the offense, but one thing Troy Calhoun has done with Air Force, which wasn't always the case under Fisher DeBerry, is established a solid defense. They've had some stout defenses over the last two years - but that's not necessarily the case this time around.
The Falcons give up 22 points per game on average, which isn't terrible, but far from their 15 a year ago. The issue, though, is the 371 yards given up a game. That's not a very good stat when you consider in 2009, they gave up almost 100 less.
But they do have a good defense. Probably the best defense Utah has faced since Iowa State (really). That's not saying a lot, I know, but it will indicate how much upside this Utes' offense really has.
Overall, this is going to be a good game. The Falcons fight and they rarely ever lose in a blowout. The fact this game is in Colorado Springs helps. But I'd be lying if I said I felt it helped enough to give them the win.
This Utah team is very, very good. They have an unbelievable ability to really just turn it on offensively. That's going to be the difference between this Ute team and the ones who have struggled at times recently against the Falcons.
Utah wins if...They play up to their potential and don't turn the ball over. Turnovers, in this atmosphere, will kill the Utes. They've got to secure the ball. They do that and they win. I believe it is that simple.
Air Force wins if...The Utes overlook the Falcons toward their showdown with TCU and are caught napping and revert back to being the turnover machine we saw against Wyoming.
What will happen...Utah does something they haven't done in program history - they win comfortably at the Air Force Academy. They won't crack 50 this week, but they'll still look pretty impressive, winning 42-17.
Bold, I know. But I'm feelin' it. What are your predictions?