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Colorado Springs, Colo. • Utah's defensive players found themselves in an unaccustomed position Saturday night, and it was their own fault.
Yet they solved the self-created problem with two fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter, preserving a 28-23 win over Air Force at Falcon Stadium.
After allowing the Falcons to deliver two long touchdown plays early in the fourth period, the Utes were facing a situation unlike anything they had dealt with since the season opener against Pittsburgh.
In that game, freshman safety Brian Blechen's interception on the first play of overtime ended Pitt's possession.
This time, Blechen and defensive back Greg Bird teamed for a tackle of AFA running back Asher Clark on fourth-and 2, then Bird joined lineman Derrick Shelby to bring down quarterback Tim Jefferson just short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-3.
On the first critical play, "I took my angle to the outside and [Jefferson] pitched it," Blechen said. "I knew it was going to be one-on-one, so I really tried to break down and make sure I stopped [Clark's] forward momentum."
Bird described the next fourth-down stop as "just a big blur," but he remembered this much: "I'm just trying to do my assignment and help out. Luckily, everybody was able to run to the ball. That's what we do."
And the Ute defense did just enough to win.
Other than a dominating effort in the third quarter, the Utes struggled to stop the Falcons' option offense.
The Utes shut down Air Force in that critical period, giving themselves some cushion.
If not for forcing five takeaways in the game and making those two fourth-down stops, the Utes may have found themselves in all kinds of trouble.
The Falcons posted 252 total yards in the first half after gaining only 231 for the whole game against Texas Christian last weekend. Air Force also topped the full-game average (247) for Ute opponents in the first 30 minutes.
The Falcons finished with 411 total yards, easily the season high against Utah.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said his defenders were in the right positions, but were just unprepared for the speed of Air Force's offense. "It takes awhile to catch up to it during the game," he said.
The Utes succeeded in the second half, except for allowing two big plays.
Air Force failed to record a first down on its first three possessions of the second half, thanks to Justin Taplin-Ross' third-down stop and interceptions by Blechen and Taplin-Ross. The Falcons netted minus-1 yard offensively in the third quarter, only to come alive in the fourth period with quarterback Tim Jefferson running for a 59-yard touchdown and throwing a 49-yard TD pass to Kyle Halderman.
Air Force's offensive statistics Saturday by half
Rush Pass Total
First half 134 118 252
Second half 76 83 159
Totals 210 201 411