There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when a visit to the Air Force Academy was the worst trip possible for the Utah football team. The Falcons would roll over the defenseless Utes with their triple option attack and send them scurrying back to Salt Lake with their tail between their legs.
The Utes were absolutely manhandled, dropping three consecutive games at Air Force by an average score of 46-21. They lost 37-15 in 1985, 48-27 in 1987 and 52-21 in 1990.
However, things changed in 1992 and since then, the series has been as competitive as any in America, at least in the games at the Academy.
While Utah has won four of the past six games in Colorado, those half dozen games have each been decided by a touchdown or less with most going right down to the wire. The average score of those games is 28.8 for Utah, 27.2 for Air Force.
The Utes are favored again for this year's visit, Saturday at 2 p.m. in Falcon Stadium, but once again a close game is expected with Utah favored by a touchdown.
"There's been some great games in the series with the Cadets," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham.
He mentioned the 2006 win on Louie Sakoda's last-second field goal, the Ben Moa pass to win the triple-overtime thriller in 2003. As for the 2001 38-37 loss, he said, "The one before that we could have had the field goal ... let's not talk about that."
Whittingham knows from past experience that the Falcons will never give up.
"One thing about those guys, they're never put away," he said. 'They never roll over and die. They continue to come at you, more so than any team you'll ever play."
That's happened in the last five games at the Academy, where the Utes have lost leads, usually in the fourth quarter. Sometimes they've held on to win, in others they haven't.
Two years ago, the two teams squared off in a rare defensive battle where points were hard to come by. The Utes led 14-7 in the fourth quarter, only to see the Falcons drive for the tying score with four minutes left.
However, the Utes came back with a drive to the AFA 20 and Sakoda booted the game-winning field goal as time expired, giving the Utes a 17-14 victory.
Sakoda recalled the game earlier this week, saying, "I've had similar situations, but that was the absolute deciding factor as far as field goals. It was my first year kicking field goals, and there was a lack of confidence in my kicking."
He recalls the Falcons calling three timeouts in an effort to ice him, which he actually appreciated.
"That's the part of icing I don't understand," he said. "I think it helps out the kicker. I ran over to my kicking net and got in another kick and ran over again to keep warm because it was freezing that game. It helped me out in that situation. It helped me calm my nerves."
Three years earlier, the Utes blew a 23-7 lead in the fourth quarter as Air Force tied the game at 23-23. After matching touchdowns and PATs, the Utes won in the third overtime when AFA quarterback Chance Harridge fell down running in for a two-point conversion and the Utes won on Ben Moa's pass to Matt Hansen.
In 2001, the Utes scored 23 straight points to take a late 37-31 lead only to miss the extra point and then watch the Falcons go ahead 38-37. After driving deep into Falcon territory, Utah looked like it might win with a field goal, but quarterback Lance Rice ran out of bounds at the 4-yard line as the clock expired.
In 1999, the Utes held on to win 21-15 after holding a 21-6 lead in the fourth quarter. That was the game future NFL star Steve Smith scored all three Ute touchdowns.
The 1994 game came the week after the unbeaten Utes lost at New Mexico. They were still 12th-ranked and they burst out to a 17-0 lead before Air Force even made a first down. However, the Falcons stormed back to take a 40-33 victory.
This year, the Falcons, like the Utes are 3-0, with wins over Southern Utah, Wyoming and Houston.
While they don't run the wishbone like they did under Fisher DeBerry, the Falcons still run the option under second-year coach Troy Calhoun and are passing perhaps less than they ever have.
Last week the Falcons didn't complete a single pass against Houston, going 0-for-7 and on the season, senior quarterback Shea Smith has completed 11 of 23 passes for 90 yards.
On the other hand, 14 players have rushed at least once this year. Besides Shea, who has rushed for 227 yards, the Falcons are led by three sophomores, Kyle Halderman, Kyle Lumpkins and Savier Stephens, who have rushed for 238, 222 and 159 yards, respectively.Defensively, the Falcons are led by linebacker Ken Lamendola, who has 24 tackles and defensive end Jake Poulson who has seven sacks on the season.
Utah vs. Air Force series
AT AIR FORCE ACADEMY SINCE 1992:
Average score: Utah 28.8, Air Force 27.2
2006 Utah 17, Air Force 14
Louie Sakoda hits 37-yard game-winner.
2003 Utah 45, Air Force 43 (3 OT)
Ben Moa turns QB for winning points.
2001 Air Force 38, Utah 37
Lance Rice runs out the clock before possible winning FG.
1999 Utah 21, Air Force 15
Steve Smith scores 3 TDs against 25th-ranked Falcons.
1994 Air Force 40, Utah 33
12th-ranked Utes blow early 17-0 lead.
1992 Utah 20, Air Force 13
Utes on the air
No. 20 Utah (3-0, 1-0)
at Air Force (3-0, 1-0)
Saturday, 2 p.m.