On a banner weekend for the Mountain West Conference, Utah’s lopsided win Saturday wasn’t even among the league’s more impressive victories.
The 20th-ranked Utes would still like to prove, however, that they’re among the conference’s elite teams.
They can take a step in that direction this Saturday when they visit Air Force for a battle of early unbeatens, hoping to bottle up the Falcons’ prolific ground game.
The Mountain West had already gained some early national attention with BYU joining Utah in the top 25, but the league really began turning heads on Saturday. All four of the conference’s teams playing against Pac-10 opponents emerged with victories, including BYU’s 59-0 rout of UCLA and UNLV’s overtime upset at then-No. 15 Arizona State.
Utah (3-0, 1-0) had to settle for trouncing lowly Utah State 58-10, but it still moved up two spots in the polls after running back Matt Asiata scored three touchdowns and the defense held the Aggies to 116 total yards.
“We really wanted to play a complete game,” senior quarterback Brian Johnson said. “We played pretty well on offense and our defense did an awesome job, but we still haven’t played near our potential.”
One thing they certainly have yet to correct is punt returns. Three different Utes returned eight punts for a total of minus-2 yards against Utah State, also fumbling three times and turning the ball over twice on punts. Coach Kyle Whittingham said his top priority this week would be to find a reliable return man.
“It is tough to figure out why we had that issue on Saturday with more than one guy,” Whittingham said. “We have got to get it fixed. That will cost us down the road if we don’t.”
They may have to solve the problem immediately, as Air Force (3-0, 1-0) presents perhaps Utah’s toughest conference test until a matchup with BYU in the regular-season finale Nov. 22.
The Falcons opened their Mountain West slate with a 23-3 win at Wyoming on Sept. 6, then claimed a 31-28 non-league victory over Houston on Saturday. The game was played in Dallas due to Hurricane Ike.
Quarterback Shea Smith failed to complete any of his seven pass attempts against the Cougars, but he ran for 93 yards and three touchdowns as part of an overwhelming ground game. Eight different Air Force runners totaled 380 yards and four touchdowns.
The windy and rainy conditions contributed to Air Force’s lopsided offense, but keeping it on the ground was nothing new for the Falcons. They rank second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of 358 rushing yards - and second-to-last with 30 passing yards per game.
“There are two schools of thought when you play Air Force,” Whittingham said Monday. “Some teams like to grind and methodically match them, keeping their defense on the field. Some teams play wide open and spread out and usually have a speed advantage. We are still formulating our plan.”
Utah had trouble containing the Falcons on the ground last year, as Air Force rolled up 334 rushing yards in a 20-12 win on Sept. 8 in Salt Lake City.
That defeat ended a four-game winning streak for the Utes in the series. The last time they visited Colorado Springs, on Nov. 18, 2006, they held the Falcons to 116 rushing yards and kicker Louie Sakoda connected on a 37-yard field goal as time expired to give Utah a 17-14 victory.
Sakoda, now a senior, is 7-for-7 on field goals so far in 2008, with four of them from 40 yards or longer.
Air Force hasn’t lost a game at Falcon Stadium since Utah’s victory, going 6-0 there last year and starting this season with a 41-7 win over Southern Utah on Aug. 30.
The Falcons have lost eight straight games against top-25 teams, however, since a 23-21 victory at then-No. 23 California on Sept. 21, 2002.
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