AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. To beat Air Force, you must stop the option attack, which is exactly what the Utah defense did Saturday afternoon, thanks to a new alignment and some outstanding execution.
The Utes' pass defense was a different story, but let's not worry about that for a minute.
Air Force came into the game as the No. 2 rushing team in the nation, averaging 358 yards per game. They came up more than 300 yards short, finishing with a mere 53 yards on 42 carries, a dismal 1.3 yards per carry. It's been 28 years since an Air Force team was held to such a low rushing total.
"To hold Air Force to 53 yards is pretty special unbelievable," said Ute defensive coordinator Gary Andersen. "Forty-two rushes for 53 yards? I've never seen the likes of it."
Neither had the Falcons, who hadn't been held to such a low total since Colorado State held them to 48 yards in 1980.
The new Ute defensive alignment featured three defensive linemen, three linebackers, one of whom played defensive end, one cornerback and four safeties.
"Against the option, you put your best 11 tacklers on the field," Andersen said. "You've got to beef up the box and do things a little bit different. They never were really able to establish the option game."
Because defensive end Koa Misi had injured his ankle in last week's game against Utah State, Andersen decided to move him inside alongside Greg Newman.
"We had to move Koa inside because he was a little gimpy and thought he'd be better on the 'A' gap than out on the end," Andersen said.
"We were undersized and we had to keep their offensive line guessing," said Newman.
With Misi moving inside, the Utes put linebacker Nai Fotu at end and played two linebackers, Mike Wright, who led the Utes with 10 tackles, and Stevenson Sylvester, who came up with eight tackles of his own.
In the backfield, the Utes started Brice McCain and regular safeties Robert Johnson and Joe Dale and added safeties Terrell Cole and DeShawn Richard.
Right from the start, the Ute defense had the Falcons' number. In the first quarter, the Falcons couldn't do anything against the Utes. In four series, they didn't get a single first down and ended the quarter with minus-3 yards of total offense.
With Utah leading 9-3, thanks in part to a safety when the Air Force punter fumbled in the end zone, the Falcons finally got a big play with quarterback Shea Smith burning the Ute defense with a 42-yard pass on a fake reverse.
"Obviously they made a couple of throws we'd like to have back," Andersen said. "You're going to give up some throws, but he put a couple of dimes out there. Last week he didn't complete a pass the whole week, but today he did."
In the third quarter, the Ute defense gave up just 11 yards and no first downs. However, in the fourth quarter, they allowed Air Force to tie the game with an 80-yard drive, keyed by a pair of passes covering 37 and 29 yards.
That was Andersen's biggest disappointment of the day.
"We've got to stop that drive," he said. "We've to to get out of that drive and finish the game and we didn't get it done in that situation.
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