August Miller, Deseret News
Ute Elijah Wesson returns a fumble for a TD in the USU blowout. Utah has a bigger challenge ahead.

Air Force didn't complete a single pass in last weekend's 31-28 win over Houston. The Falcons, in fact, attempted just seven throws in the game.

"That's just typical Air Force," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said as the 20th-ranked Utes prepare for Saturday's road game against the Falcons. "It's untypical not to complete any balls, but they're not going to throw the ball any more than 10 or 12 times most weeks of the season. So you've got to play the run just about every snap against those guys."

Knowing what Air Force is going to do is one thing; stopping it is quite another.

Under second-year head coach Troy Calhoun, the Falcons have installed several new-look formations to throw the opposition off. Whittingham said the Utes have identified about 25 of them. And though most result in the option plays the program has traditionally used in the past, the new-look formations often dictate different defensive assignments.

"When you play against Air Force, you must play disciplined, assignment football on defense," Whittingham said.

The Falcons enter the Mountain West Conference showdown between 3-0 teams with the nation's No. 2 rushing offense. Through victories over Southern Utah, Wyoming and Houston, they're averaging 358 yards per game on the ground.

"We have to plan for the run. We have to be ready to come up, make tackles and don't let anything behind us," said Utah safety Joe Dale. "And at the same time, we have to be ready for play-action and be ready for the pass."

Air Force averages just 30 yards passing per game. The Falcons were 3 of 4 on throws against Wyoming and 8 of 12 in their season-opener against SUU.

These birds, obviously, prefer the ground.

"Since they're going to run the ball that many times, you know you have to come with it every play," said defensive tackle Derrick Shelby, who noted that any lost gaps in the defense will result in positive yardage for Air Force.

It's definitely assignment football, explained Dale.

"Each person has to be locked in and gap sound," he said. "It's very complicated to defend. So if you're not a disciplined defense you can struggle."

Utah's defense has managed things well thus far. The Utes currently rank second in the MWC in rushing defense (64 ypg), passing defense (138.3 ypg), pass-efficiency defense (100.1) and scoring defense (18 ppg).

Facing an unbalanced attack like Air Force hasn't altered Utah's approach. Dale said the secondary is eager to show what it can do this week.

"It's still fun. You can show as a defensive back that you can also come up and make tackles," he explained. "You're not just a pass defender. We're all looking forward to it, and we'll take advantage of our opportunity."

EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said Aiona Key, David Reed and Terrell Cole are the headliners in what will be tryouts for a consistent punt returner this week ... Reserve linebacker Matt Martinez suffered a biceps injury in the Utah State game and may require surgery ... Shelby, Sealver Siliga and Aaron Tonga will continue to rotate at nose tackle. Shelby is scheduled to make his first career start at Air Force.

Utes on the air

No. 20 Utah (3-0, 1-0) at Air Force (3-0, 1-0)

Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV: Versus

Radio: 700AM

E-mail: [email protected]