AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. It's a hurdle and a big one at that.
When 20th-ranked Utah faces Air Force this afternoon at Falcon Stadium, something will have to give. The winner will leave the field with a 4-0 record (2-0 in league play) and sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference.
For the Utes, there's the added incentive to keep their Bowl Championship Series hopes alive and avenge a 20-12 setback last season in Salt Lake City.
"It'll be a very good challenge for us," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who is scheming to slow an Air Force option that averages 358 yards per game on the ground.
Aside from a couple of days in the spring and one day in fall camp, the Utes have had just a week to prepare for the Falcons.
And it's no secret what they're focusing on, especially against a team that failed to complete a single pass in a win over Houston last week.
"You've got to stop the run," said head coach Kyle Whittingham.
"If you can't stop the run, nothing else matters against Air Force."
Though he does expect the Falcons to throw the ball a little more this week, Whittingham reiterated that stopping the option is first and foremost in Utah's mind. It's assignment football and then some.
"One thing about these guys is they're never put away. They never, ever roll over and die or quit on you. They continue to come at you more so than any team you'll ever play," Whittingham said. "Those guys are mentally tough. They're disciplined. You're going to get their best shot for the full 60 minutes. No doubt about it."
The key, he noted, may be getting an early lead since an option offense isn't really geared toward coming from behind.
Utah quarterback Brian Johnson agrees.
"Anytime you play Air Force, you know it's going to be a tough, competitive, close game," he said. "We've got to go out there and find a way to play well, execute and start fast. I think if we do that, we should be OK."
The bottom line, Johnson continued, is to be efficient by scoring touchdowns instead of field goals.
"We know they're very disciplined and they do some nice things defensively," he said. "So we've got to go out and play our game."
And as of late, Utah's game has been winning. If it weren't for that painful fourth-and-18 play last season against BYU, the Utes could very well be riding a 13-game winning streak.
"It's that close," Johnson said before noting that the Utes are looking ahead and not in the past. They're determined like almost every coach in the world likes to say to take things one game at a time.
So far, so good. Utah is 3-0 for the first time since 2004.
"There's a sense of confidence that comes with winning," Johnson said. "I think it just goes to the preparation we put in as a team."
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun certainly sounds impressed with the Utes' performance thus far this season.
"They should have BCS aspirations," Calhoun said. "This is one of the 15 best teams in the country and one of those teams that when the year is finished, it could very well play on Jan. 1 or 2.
"I thought they would beat Michigan and I thought they would be pretty good. But they're even better. Defensively, they are just superb," Calhoun said.
The Falcons are looking for their first win at Falcon Stadium over a ranked opponent since knocking off No. 20 Colorado State 44-40 in 2000. They have a lifetime record of 12-60-3 against ranked teams.EXTRA POINTS: Air Force leads the all-time series 14-10, including a 7-4 advantage over the Utes at Falcon Stadium. ... Utah, however, has not lost at Air Force since 2001. ... The Falcons have won all seven of their home games under second-year coach Troy Calhoun. ... It's homecoming at the academy.
Utes on the air
No. 20 Utah (3-0, 1-0) at Air Force (3-0, 1-0)
Today, 2 p.m.
Radio: 700 AM
E-mail: [email protected] Contributing: Associated Press.
Contributing: Associated Press.