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Classic contest: Utah vs. Air Force history is full of fantastic finishes

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 10:47 p.m. MDT

Marty Johnson stumbles into the end zone in Utah's win over Air Force last season. The Utes' closest game of last year wasn't decided until the fourth quarter. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News) Marty Johnson stumbles into the end zone in Utah's win over Air Force last season. The Utes' closest game of last year wasn't decided until the fourth quarter. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News)
One year a Utah quarterback threw for a NCAA-record 631 yards — only to see his team lose. Another time, Air Force overcame a 35-14 halftime deficit to win with 31 straight points. There was the time Utah scored 15 points in a 10-second span in the final minute to eke out an unbelievable one-point win. Or the time the clock ran out on the Utes before they could attempt a chip-shot game-winning field goal. Of course, who can forget tight end Ben Moa passing for the winning points in the triple-overtime game that propelled Utah on its 18-game winning streak.
From phantom fumbles to fantastic finishes, it's always something when Utah and Air Force get together, as they will Thursday night (5:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN-TV) at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Something wild and wacky always seems to happen when the Utah and Air Force meet on the football field.
"It seems like every single Air Force game has its own storyline that is one for the ages," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who has been a part of eight Utah-AFA games. "I can't remember one that is just normal."
Utah's Matt Hansen (89) celebrates his winning touchdown catch in a 45-43 three-overtime victory over the Cadets in 2003 in a triple-overtime game. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News) Utah's Matt Hansen (89) celebrates his winning touchdown catch in a 45-43 three-overtime victory over the Cadets in 2003 in a triple-overtime game. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News)
Whittingham has it pegged. Looking at the history of the Utah-AFA series, at least since the Falcons joined the same league as the Utes in the early 1980s, nearly every game has featured unusual and memorable moments.
Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, who has 21 years of experience playing Utah, agrees that games against Utah are more memorable than games against other opponents.
"We've always had very competitive games," said DeBerry, who can recall the smallest details of previous Ute-Falcon encounters over the past two decades. "I wouldn't expect it to be anything different this year."
Utah vs. Air Force just might be the most competitive college football series going. Just look at the numbers.
While Air Force owns a 13-8 all-time edge over the Utes, since 1990 when Ron McBride took over as coach, the series stands 6-6. During that time, Air Force has scored 29.8 points per game compared to Utah's 29.1 points per game.
Just two of the games in the past 15 years were not competitive — the Falcons' 52-21 victory in 1990 and Utah's 41-24 win in 1993. Last year's 49-35 win by Utah year was the Utes' closest game of the year, one that wasn't decided until the fourth quarter.
Otherwise, the margin of every game was since 1990 has been less than 10 points with most of the games not being decided until the final minute.
Last year's game wasn't, but earlier this week, DeBerry was still talking about the fumble that turned the momemtum from Air Force to Utah.
It happened late in the third quarter after AFA quarterback Shaun Carney had run 16 yards to the Air Force 42. The Utes came out of the pile with the football and after a lengthy consultation, the officials signaled Utah ball.
DeBerry slammed his hat to the ground and complained later about how long it took the officials to make the call, although he didn't blame the call on his team's loss. But he obviously hasn't forgotten about it.
"The last two years haven't gone the way we hoped," he said. "Last year they came back after being down 14-0, but unfortunately we got a call we didn't totally agree with."
DeBerry can remember details of the Utah games right down to the correct scores in the middle of the games.
He recalled the 1986 game when the Falcons overcame a 35-14 halftime deficit by scoring 31 straight second-half points to win 45-35. He knew every detail of the crushing 1995 defeat when his team led the whole way only to lose in the final minute when Mike Fouts hit Kevin Dyson with a long touchdown pass.
Whittingham can also recall the details of several Utah-Air Force contests. The 2002 game in Salt Lake when the Utes blew a 26-6 halftime lead and lost 30-26 still sticks in his craw. The 2003 game was thrilling for Ute fans, but Whittingham, the defensive coordinator at the time, called it a "defensive fiasco," since his team gave up 43 points.
The first Utah-Air Force encounter was in 1957 when Utah won 34-0 in Salt Lake City. The following year, the two teams met in Colorado Springs with the Falcons winning 16-14.
The two schools didn't meet again until 1983 and once more the Falcons won a two-point game in Colorado 33-31. The Utes won the following year when they overcame an early 17-0 deficit to win 28-17 under Chuck Stobart. The Falcons reeled off five straight wins while Jim Fassel was the Ute coach and ever since then, the series has been even.
Here's a look at some of the more memorable Ute-Falcon games:

1986 (SLC) — A week after getting thumped by Ohio State 64-6, the Utes jump out to a 35-14 halftime lead. However Jim Fassel's offense goes to sleep in the second half and the Falcons roar back to take a 45-35 victory. The Utes don't recover and lose their next four games and finish the season at 2-9.

1988 (SLC) — Scott Mitchell passes for an NCAA-record 631 yards, but the porous Ute defense allows the Falcons, behind quarterback Dee Dowis, to rush for 640 yards. The teams trade touchdowns all afternoon before the Falcons emerge with a 56-49 victory.

1989 (SLC) — In what turned out to be Fassel's final game as Ute coach, the Utes storm back from a 42-18 deficit with 20 straight points behind quarterback Mike Richmond, who hadn't practiced for two weeks because of a sore arm. With less than two minutes left, Richmond's pass to a wide-open freshman Bryan Rowley, bounces off his hands at the 5-yard line, ending the Utes' hopes in a 42-38 loss.

1991 (SLC) — Trailing 24-21, the Utes drive to the 5-yard line inside the final minute. On fourth down, Ute coach Ron McBride opts to go for the tie (this was before overtimes in college football). However, Chris Yergensen's 23-yard field goal try is blocked by Carlton McDonald, giving the Falcons the win.

1994 (AFA) — Coming off a startling loss at New Mexico the week before to ruin their unbeaten season, the 12th-ranked Utes start off great against the Falcons, jumping to a quick 17-0 lead. The Falcons chip away and go ahead 34-31 late in the game and apparently clinch the game with a late touchdown run. But wait. The Utes block the extra point kick and cornerback Kareem Leary picks up the loose ball and races 80 yards to give the Utes two points. Suddenly, instead of being down by 10 points, the Utes trail by seven and still have a chance to tie. Mike McCoy and the Utes make it to midfield, but can't get any closer and lose 40-33.

1995 (SLC) — The Air Force defense dominates all day and late in the fourth quarter, the Falcons lead 21-7. A 54-yard pass set up a 17-yard TD pass from Mike Fouts to Rocky Henry with 41 seconds left. A two-point conversion makes it 21-15. Then the Utes execute a perfect onsides kick and recover at midfield. The Utes decide to go for it all on one play and Fouts finds Dyson streaking down the left sideline for a 50-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left. Dan Pulsipher's PAT gives Utah the highly improbable victory, 22-21.

2001 (AFA) — The Utes make a gallant second-half comeback with 23 straight points to take a 37-31 lead with six minutes left in the game. However, the Falcons come back to take a 38-37 lead a couple of minutes later. The Utes are driving for the apparent game-winning field goal when confusion reigns on the Ute side. The Utes try to get an extra play in and as Lance Rice runs for an 8-yard gain, the clock runs out with the Utes at the 4-yard line. Utes lose.

2002 (SLC) — A week after nearly upsetting Michigan, Utah fritters away a 26-6 halftime lead and lose 30-26 when Chance Harridge hits Don Clark with a 20-yard pass with 17 seconds left. The Utes lose their next three and McBride is fired after the season.

2003 (AFA) — The Utes blow a 23-7 lead and have to go three overtimes to prevail over the pesky Falcons. In the third overtime, AFA's Harridge slips while trying to make it into the end zone on the two-point conversion. On 4th and 1, Utah's Ben Moa plows into the end zone to tie the score and then on the two-point try, fakes the same play, but pulls back and passes to Matt Hansen for the winning score.


Utah-Air Force Series since 1990

Wins: Utah 6, Air Force 6
Average score: Air Force 29.8, Utah 29.1

2004—Utah 49, Air Force 35
2003—Utah 45, Air Force 43 (3 OT)
2002—Air Force 30, Utah 26
2001—Air Force 38, Utah 37
2000—Air Force 23, Utah 14
1999—Utah 21, Air Force 15
1995—Utah 22, Air Force 21
1994—Air Force 40, Utah 33
1993—Utah 41, Air Force 24
1992—Utah 20, Air Force 13
1991—Air Force 24, Utah 21
1990—Air Force 52, Utah 21


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