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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
University of Utah fans Travis Card, left, and Derek Jensen celebrate the win against Air Force on Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Utes rallied to a 30-23 victory.

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Teams entering Falcon Stadium walk under a sign with a little reminder.

"Warning: Lack of oxygen. Elevation: 6,621 feet above sea level."

It could probably be covered up whenever Utah visits Air Force, however. These clashes tend to leave folks somewhat breathless regardless of the altitude.

Saturday's game was no exception.

Darrell Mack's 9-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds to play lifted the 20th-ranked Utes to a hard-fought 30-23 victory over the Falcons. It marked the third consecutive time they've prevailed in dramatic fashion at the academy.

"Any time we play these guys it seems to come down to the very end, the very last drive," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "It was no different this afternoon."

The Utes overcame plenty of adversity to win the battle of undefeated teams and secure sole possession of the Mountain West Conference lead. They're now 4-0 overall and 2-0 in league play.

Three first-half turnovers proved costly and kept Air Force in the game. The Falcons (3-1, 1-1) led at halftime and played the Utes to a standstill until the final minute. They did so despite rushing for just 53 yards, their second-lowest total since installing an option offense in 1980.

"To hang in there with the adversity that we fought throughout the whole football game was a big compliment to the kids," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who added that the defense did an unbelievable job stopping the Air Force option. "The kids knocked the run game out. I've never seen anything like it."

Middle linebacker Mike Wright led a balanced defense with 10 tackles. Defensive end Paul Kruger made 2.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage to top a list of nine Utes credited with tackles-for-loss.

"The defense played well start to finish," Whittingham said.

An interception by safety Joe Dale with 53 seconds remaining preserved the victory. It capped a seesaw affair that has become the norm in this conference rivalry.

"We knew all week that these guys were going to be a tough team. They were going to fly around and play their football," Kruger said. "So we just wanted to counteract and do the same thing — really be tough and play to the end of the game."

Mission accomplished.

Before Dale sealed the deal, Utah's offense put together a game-winning drive. The Utes converted on third-down situations three times to set up Mack's decisive touchdown. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said the key was a 12-yard pass from Brian Johnson to Freddie Brown on third-and-8 early in the drive.

"We played the way we had to play to have a shot," Calhoun explained. "We had to be almost flawless and we were not."

The Falcons, though, were opportunistic. After forcing the Utes to punt with less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, they marched 80 yards on 10 plays to erase a 23-16 deficit.

A 1-yard touchdown run by Savie Stephens set the stage for another dramatic conclusion.

"This game never ceases to amaze me. It just gets better and better," said Johnson, who overcame three first-half turnovers to lead an offense that netted 440 yards.

Trailing 16-9 after a turnover-plagued second quarter, Utah bounced back with touchdowns early in the third and fourth quarters to regain control.

Mack had both of the scores. The first came on an 8-yard run that capped a sustained drive to open the second half. The Utes took nearly four minutes off the clock while moving 69 yards on eight plays.

"We wanted to set a tone early," Johnson said.

Mack's second touchdown was a 1-yard run on fourth down with 13:09 left to play.

Between scores, Utah had a chance to take the lead on a 54-yard field goal by Louie Sakoda. The All-American kicker, though, was wide left on a 54-yard attempt. He went 0-for-2 on the day but punted well and made all of his PATs.

Mack and Matt Asiata were the big stars. Asiata led Utah with 116 yards rushing, while Mack finished with 101.

"Darrell and Matt, our 1 and 1-A, they're the guys that pound the rock for us," Whittingham said. "Two sledgehammer-type runners. And when we needed it most, they came through and ran very effectively."

Utah led 9-0 after the first quarter — a slim margin considering the statistical advantage the Utes held. While the offense racked up 137 yards, the defense held Air Force to minus-3 yards. The Falcons failed to get a single first down. Two drives ended with punts, one with a safety and the other with an interception.

After ending their first possession with a loss-on-downs when Johnson was sacked on the Falcon 40 on fourth-and-2, the Utes reached the end zone on their second drive. A 47-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to David Reed put Utah ahead with 6:27 to play in the first quarter.

The lead swelled to nine points less than two minutes later. Air Force punter Ryan Harrison failed to handle the snap properly and wound up throwing the ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety.

Utah's bid to capitalize on the miscue ended with misfortune. The ensuing offensive series ended with an interception in the same end zone. A pass intended for Brown was tipped by strong safety Chris Thomas and caught by cornerback Reggie Rembert.

Two more turnovers followed before the quarter was complete. Brice McCain intercepted a pass for Utah and Thomas recovered a fumble by Johnson.

The latter led to Air Force's initial points.

A 44-yard field goal by Harrison capped an eight-play drive by the Falcons early in the second quarter.

Besides cutting Utah's lead to 9-3, it also served as a momentum shift of sorts.

A rare missed field-goal attempt by Sakoda — who entered the game 7-for-7 — sparked another Air Force score. The Falcons followed the wide-right kick from 48 yards out with a touchdown march that covered 69 yards on eight snaps. An 8-yard scoring strike from Shea Smith to Kyle Lumpkin, along with Harrison's successful PAT, gave Air Force its first lead at 10-9.

The Falcons added another touchdown before the half was complete. This one came from the defense and a sack of Johnson by Rick Ricketts. The defensive end jarred the ball loose and teammate Jake Paulson scooped it up and ran 25 yards to increase Air Force's lead to 16-9. It stayed that way for the balance of the quarter after a bad snap foiled the extra-point attempt.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com