David Zalubowski, Associated Press
Utah running back Darrell Mack, left, celebrates with teammate Freddie Brown after rushing for the game-winning touchdown.

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — "Always exciting, always exciting."

That's what Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said as he walked off the field at Falcon Stadium on Saturday, moments after the Utes' 30-23 win over Air Force.

The latest chapter in a series of tightly contested games between the Utes and Falcons at the academy went down to the final minute.

A five-second span separated the squads and lifted Utah to sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference. The victory, which upped the Utes' record to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in league play, also provided a bump in the national rankings — moving them from 20th to 17th in the latest Associated Press and coaches polls.

"Utah is good, really, really good. They are strong at every position," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said after his previously unbeaten Falcons fell to 3-1. "They have tremendous quickness. They are certainly a squad that deserves to be in the top 15."

Kind words considering it took some late heroics for the Utes to earn any poll climbing this week.

A 9-yard touchdown run by Darrell Mack with 58 seconds remaining provided what proved to be the game-winning score. An interception by Joe Dale assured it five seconds later.

The plays capped a wild afternoon for the Utes. While the defense wound up holding the nation's second-best ground game to just 53 yards, other aspects endured some adversity.

The offense turned the ball over three times (two fumbles and an interception) in the first half. The miscues helped Air Force build a 16-9 lead.

On special teams, sure-footed Louie Sakoda missed both field goals he attempted. The All-American entered the game 7-for-7 on the season.

Defensive end Paul Kruger said adversity builds character.

"How you react to those types of things are really what makes you the type of team that you are," he explained. "So I feel like we grew a lot today. We found out what we can do against a tough team like Air Force. So it was a great day for us."

The Utes overcame their shortcomings with defense and a solid one-two punch at running back. Matt Asiata netted 116 yards and Mack added 101. Both contributed on the final drive — an 11-play, 80-yard march that took more than four minutes off the clock. Mack closed the deal by picking up 18 yards on third-and-5 to set up his decisive touchdown a play later. It was his third score of the day.

"I was trying to finish strong, play a complete game and just try to help my team win," said Mack, who credited the offensive line for making it possible. "I was just trying to help my team and make things happen — to come out with the victory most of all."

Though the final margin was too close for comfort, safety Terrell Cole acknowledged a win is a win. The difficulty, he continued, could be beneficial down the road.

"It made us a better team. Adversity is good sometimes. You don't want to go through any season just coasting because you don't know what's going to happen when you hit adversity," Cole said. "If someone knocks us in the mouth, we're just going to hit them right back."

A battle with Air Force, however, wasn't unexpected. There's history here.

"I knew it was going to be a tough game," Mack said. "I've been here four years, and all four years it's always been a close game."

Mac returns to U.

Weber St. (3-1) at No. 17 Utah (4-0)

Saturday, 6 p.m.

Rice Eccles Stadium

TV: None; Radio: 700AM

E-mail: [email protected]