AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Nothing comes easy here for the Utah Utes.
Saturday's 28-23 win over Air Force was no different. It wasn't easy and it took some time to do it, but somehow, some way, they were finally able to shake off the pesky Falcons in a game that went down to the very last play.
"That was a vintage Air Force game," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Very typical of what we've had the last 8-10 years."
After a shaky first half and an interception to open the third quarter, the seventh-ranked Utes were able to remain unbeaten and set up a showdown with No. 4 TCU next Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"It's going to be a showdown. They're having another great year," Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn said of the Horned Frogs. "I know their defense is having another good year. So, you know, we're going to have to go out and play a perfect game."
Mountain West Conference title and Bowl Championship Series implications will be on the line in a game that is expected to draw national media attention, including a visit by ESPN's "College GameDay" program.
Utah's journey to 8-0 wasn't all that secure until a span of 3:31 late in the third quarter. That's when the Utes added to a 14-10 halftime lead. They got things started with a 36-yard scoring strike from Wynn to Luke Matthews.
Less than one minute later, safety Brian Blechen intercepted a pass and returned it 14 yards to the Air Force 18. The ensuing series included a fake field goal by the Utes and a 7-yard run for a first down by kicker Joe Phllips. The series eventually ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Eddie Wide.
The outburst increased Utah's lead to 28-10, but it almost wasn't enough.
"It looks like we're about to close them out and they come roaring back," Whittingham said. "The defense had just enough in the tank, made just enough plays in that second half to get the win."
Just enough, as it turned out, to withstand a pair of quick fourth-quarter touchdowns by Air Force.
Quarterback Tim Jefferson orchestrated the scores, which were just 72 seconds apart. He ran 59 yards for the first one and connected on a 49-yard pass play to Kyle Halderman for the second. A failed two-point conversion followed the latter, closing all scoring in a series marked by close games and dramatic finishes in recent years.
The contest ended with Jefferson being sacked by linebacker Chaz Walker on the Air Force 35.
"They never give up," said Utah cornerback Brandon Burton. "I'm just glad they're defending our country."
The game started off as expected before taking some dramatic twists.
Air Force, the nation's top rushing team, ran the ball on the opening play from scrimmage. After a 12-yard gain by Jonathan Warzeka, though, the Falcons went to the air.
It proved costly.
Wide receiver Mikel Hunter caught a 34-yard pass from Jefferson but lost the ball when Burton jarred it away. Safety Greg Bird pounced on it to give the Utes possession at their own 32.
Utah, which entered the game as the MWC's top passing team, then pulled a switch of its own. The Utes opened their first drive with seven consecutive runs by Matt Asiata. A 5-yard throw from Wynn to Jereme Brooks followed before they turned to Wide for five straight runs, culminating with a 1-yard touchdown plunge.
The ground-oriented attack took 7:10 off the clock.
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