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.
It took far less time, however, for Air Force to respond. The Falcons countered less than four minutes later when Warzeka ran 11 yards for a touchdown, capping an eight-play drive with 2:50 remaining in the first quarter.
With the score knotted at 7-7, more drama followed.
Before the quarter was complete, Air Force recovered an ensuing onside kick and later lost another fumble off a completed pass. The latter followed a 36-yard throw from Jefferson to Joshua Freeman.
Lamar Chapman forced the fumble and Blechen recovered it on the Utah 9.
In the second quarter, Air Force became the first team since Iowa State went up 7-0 on Oct. 9 to hold a lead on the Utes. A 23-yard field goal by Erik Soderberg with 11:44 to play in the half gave the Falcons a 10-7 advantage.
It didn't stay that way for long, however.
Utah upped its seasonlong, second-quarter scoring edge to 141-16 with a 12-play touchdown drive. And as was the case early on, there were some tense moments along the way — starting with the squib kick Air Force attempted..
Neli A'asa fielded it for the Utes, but not until the ball bounced off him first.
Utah's march downfield also proved dramatic. It took a 9-yard throw from Wynn to Shaky Smithson on fourth-and-5 from the Air Force 25 to keep the drive alive.
Asiata eventually capped things off with a 1-yard touchdown run on third down to give the Utes the lead.
The 14-10 edge held firm over the remaining 6:22 of the second quarter.
A promising drive by Air Force ended with another turnover. Running back Asher Clark gained seven yards before Bird forced a fumble with a hit and Christian Cox recovered it on the Utah 32.
The three takeaways allowed the Utes to overcome a 252-141 deficit in total offense over the first two quarters.