Too little, too late. That was Air Force's mantra late Thursday night. Although a furious fourth quarter charge by Air Force made the outcome questionable, ultimately the Falcons' effort was not enough to overtake the Utes, and Utah was able to shut them down when it counted, emerging with a 38-35 victory.
The Utes entered the game against the Falcons with their backs against the wall and a number of questions to answer after last week's painful loss to TCU. This was a must win game, as a loss would have all but vanquished any hopes of a third straight Mountain West Conference championship.
However, despite fading once again in the fourth quarter, the Utes left the game with a number of answers, a victory under their belts, and one step closer to their overall goal of defending their conference title.
Question: Can Brian Johnson produce results?
Answer: Yes. Brian Johnson was nothing short of spectacular, throwing for 305 yards and 2 touchdowns, while rushing for another three scores. He ran the offense with poise, and limited mistakes and missed opportunities.
Question: Can the Utah offense show consistency when they need to?
Answer: They are improving. After weeks of showing flashes of potential, the Utah offense finally began to click against the Falcons. They scored 38 points, rolled off 457 yards of total offense, and improved their third down efficiency, converting 7 of 16 attempts (44%).
Question: Can the offense put opponents away?
Answer: Not yet. Despite its outstanding overall performance, the Utah offense stagnated in the fourth quarter. The Utah offenses biggest problem late in games remains a lack of execution and conservative play calling. Coach Whittingham admitted after that game that he may have called off the dogs too early. If the Utes can learn from their mistakes, fans should expect to see the Utah offense develop a killer instinct as the season progresses.
Question: Can the Utes stop the option?
Answer: Yes. With the exception of a few lapses in the first quarter, the Utah defense defended the option superbly. The Falcons were unable to move the ball through much of the second and third quarters, as the Utes built a 17 point lead.
Question: Can the inexperienced linebackers hold their own?
Answer: The linebackers were much improved against Air Force. Sophomore Kyle Brady made the most of his first career start, recording 6 tackles and half a sack while demonstrating some needed athleticism. Grady Marshall and Joe Jiannoni had solid games, combining for 12 tackles and half a sack. Spencer Toone once again led the way with 14 tackles and half a sack.
Question: Can the defensive line live up to the hype?
Answer: The defensive line showed a much improved effort against Air Force. Steve Fifita was instrumental in disrupting the Air Force line and stopping the fullback dive, and Martail Burnett played his best game as a Ute, recording eight tackles and half a sack.
Question: Can the defense hold up in the fourth quarter?
Answer: Not yet. This was the third time in four tries that the Utah defense has allowed its opponents to erase a second half lead. Although Air Force's late game heroics were not enough to win the game, the Utah defense's inability to stop the Falcons when it really counted was yet another part of a disturbing trend. The Utes must show they can finish games if they want to continue to win.
Question: Can Utah's special teams unit match last year's intensity and success?
Answer: Utah's special teams unit showed an aggressiveness that was lacking in the first three games of the season. Grady Marshall's blocked punt in the 2nd quarter set the tone for a fine performance by the entire special teams unit.
Question: Is the kicking game good enough to win?
Answer: Yes. Dan Beardall continued his solid play by kicking a career best 46 yard field goal to close out the first half. For the season, Beardall is 6 for 7 on field goal attempts and 14 for 14 on extra points.