Frank Dolce, the University of Utah's injured starting quarterback, boarded the Ute charter to Colorado Springs Friday morning and later in the day attended practice. He will dress for today's game against the Air Force Academy, but don't get the wrong idea. Dolce, the Utes say, won't play today, despite reports and indications to the contrary.
"The only way I'll play is if (reserve quarterbacks) Mike McCoy and Stewart Hansen go down," said Dolce. "If I hurt the knee again now, I'll be done for the season. I tried to talk (trainer) Bill Bean into playing (today), but he wouldn't go for it."Why did Dolce make the trip to Colorado Springs then? "Because he's a leader, plus he can help the guy (quarterback) on the field," says Ute head coach Ron McBride.
Reversing roles with McCoy, Dolce will signal plays from the sideline to McCoy, just as he did last week. Dolce, who has a sprained knee, will participate in his first full-speed workout on Monday. If all goes as expected, he will play next week against Fresno State, but by then it might be too late for the Utes. Their already slim hopes for a conference championship will end if they lose today.
Utah's entire season seems to have turned on a single play: a sack of Dolce in the first half against New Mexico three weeks ago in which he hurt the knee. The Utes proceeded to lose to New Mexico and UTEP, the two worst teams in the Western Athletic Conference (with a combined record of 3-12).
The Utes were 4-1 and challenging for a championship when Dolce was healthy; they're 0-2 since then. The Ute offense, one of the country's most potent through the first five games with Dolce at quarterback, has scored just 13 points in the six quarters Dolce has missed.
The Utes will meet the Falcons today at noon. Air Force is perhaps the hottest team in the WAC, having upset frontrunning San Diego State on the road last week. The Falcons are 6-2 overall, 4-2 in league play and one game behind WAC leaders Hawaii and San Diego State. Air Force has beaten Utah in eight of their last nine meetings, including the last seven.
"Of the opponents we've faced, Oregon State is the most similar to Air Force because they both run the 'bone," says McBride. "Air Force is a lot quicker and runs it better, though. They have been operating the wishbone for a long time."
But Air Force's offense, for once, might not be Utah's biggest problem today. The Falcons have scored 72 points this season directly or indirectly from turnovers forced by their defense and special teams. Remarkably, the Falcons, who annually field a prolific offense, rank last in the WAC in total offense - but first in scoring defense and total defense.
The Falcon defense will provide a stiff challenge for McCoy, who struggled in his two outings against UTEP and Colorado State, which rank among the country's worst defenses. Look for the Utes to put more emphasis on their running game today to take pressure off McCoy. Whether they can stay with the running game remains to be seen.
The Utes will have to decide how to better utilize both of their tailbacks, Keith Williams and Pierre Jones. While Williams was sidelined with an ankle injury, Jones rushed for nearly 400 yards in three games, but when Williams returned to the lineup last week Jones was virtually forgotten. Jones didn't play in the first half and had only five carries in the second half. He has totaled 506 yards this season, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
"We've got to get both of them in there," said McBride.
Williams and Jones will alternate today, playing several series at a time. "It's just kind of a feeling you have (about when to play the other tailback)," says McBride.
The Ute players are as baffled as anyone by their recent slump. On Monday, they held a players-only meeting to discuss the rest of the season. "It's a four-game season now," says linebacker Preston Christensen. "We're looking at this as a fresh start."