By John Van Winkle
Academy Public Affairs
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Seven yards in overtime was the margin of victory for Utah as the Utes’ defense held off Air Force on a fourth down to seal a 23-16 win.
Utah entered the game ranked 19th and 20th by the nation’s two college football polls, and is the second nationally-ranked team Air Force has played in three weeks.
The Air Force Academy brought national rankings to the game as well. The Falcons defense was ranked 10th in the nation among NCAA Division 1 schools, fourth in passing defense, seventh in scoring defense, and first in turnover margin in the nation, with 21 turnovers going in the Utah game.
This led to a classic college football matchup with neither team gaining too much of an overall edge and leaving the score tied 16-all as time ran out in regulation.
Entering overtime, each team was given the ball at the 25-yard line, and had to keep gaining first downs to keep the ball with the goal of eventually scoring. Air Force won the toss and elected to start on defense, while Utah chose the south end zone in front of their vocal student second to defend.
Utah drove forward on 5 plays, until Ute quarterback Terrance Cain completed a pass to wide receiver David Reed, who stretched toward the goal-line marker on the right end. Falcons defensive back Jon Davis knocked the ball loose, but it bounced out of bounds to give Utah the ball at the 1-foot line.
Three straight-ahead rushes by Utah eventually broke the plane of the goal line, giving Utah a 22-16 lead before 45,129 screaming red-clad fans. Joe Phillips added the extra point to make it 23-16 Utah.
Air Force took over and relied on their nationally-ranked rushing attack to move the ball, as Falcons quarterback Connor Dietz ran the ball three straight plays. Utah’s stingy defense held Air Force to six yards, leading the Falcons with a fourth and four at the Utah 19.
On that fourth down, Dietz connected with wide receiver Kevin Fogler on the right side, and Fogler’s forward progress gave the Falcons a first down at the Utah 15.
With a fresh set of downs, the Falcons tried a pass play, but Dietz had to throw the ball away in the face of the pass rush. The Falcons returned to the option on second down when Dietz pitched to tailback Asher Clark for a 2 yard gain. Dietz kept the ball on third down and gained 6 yards, moving the ball to the Utah 7 yard line.
“There was no trickery or anything. We knew they were going to go with the option, that’s their bread and butter,” said Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester.
That left the Falcons facing another do-or die fourth down with just 2 yards to earn a fresh set of downs.
Dietz took the snap from center Michael Hampton, and tried to run between the center and right guard.
“I thought I could squeeze through there, after our offensive line had a good surge, but they had a few guys there we couldn’t stop,” said Dietz.
Utah linebackers Mike Wright and Sylvester combined to stuff Dietz at the line for zero gain, and the Utah crowd roared as the game ended in a Ute victory on their 7-yard line.
“This is exactly the kind of game I would expect based on our series with Air Force,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “This was very similar to games we’ve had with them in the last 15 years. They’re a tough football team. I’m proud of how my team played. We just keep finding ways to win at the end.”
For the Falcons, the Utah loss makes four close games the Falcons have lost, by a total of 20 points. Even being cheered by Utah fans after the game to beat BYU in Air Force’s final game of the season wasn’t enough to overcome the bitter taste of defeat.
“These are tough, hard pills to swallow,” said Calhoun. “You just have to find a way to dig and come up with a way to win the football game. You have to find a way to make a couple more plays – as a team.”
The loss to 19th-ranked Utah dropped the Falcons to 4-4 on the season and 3-2 in the Mountain West Conference. With the win, Utah upped their record to 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the conference. The win not only makes Utah bowl-eligible, it also keeps the Utes in contention with TCU for the Mountain West Conference title, and keeps both Utah and undefeated TCU remain in the hunt for a BCS bid.
“I think that Utah is an outstanding squad,” said Calhoun. “That’s one of those squads that, given the chance, they’ll win double-digit games by the end of the year. To be able to come here and get into a position to win down the stretch, you have to play some solid football and we did – at least during stretches. We could have played better and I think we know that.”
The Falcons also had one key loss in the game. Sophomore quarterback Dietz injured his hand on the fourth play of the game, but continued to play despite his diminished ability to pass. Dietz ended the game completing 7 of 10 passing attempts for 64 yards, which is typical for the Falcons run-oriented offense.
After the game, X-rays revealed that Dietz broke a bone in his hand. He is expected to be out for the next three weeks.
Those next three games are all winnable for the Falcons, and each of the next three opponents is below .500 – Colorado State University (3-5 overall, 0-4 MWC); UNLV (3-5 overall, 1-3 MWC) and Army, (3-5 overall). Army will be the toughest matchup, as they have a bye week before playing Air Force.
The Falcons return to the gridiron Oct. 31 in Fort Collins, Colo., to battle the CSU Rams.