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Colorado Springs, Colo.

Early in the fourth quarter Saturday night at Falcon Stadium, Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn rolled out and tossed a short pass to running back Matt Asiata.

With a routine catch, the Utes would convert a fourth-down play and position themselves to extend their commanding lead over Air Force. They would have a relaxing fourth quarter against the Falcons for a change, and everybody in Uteville could begin thinking about next weekend's showdown with Texas Christian.

Asiata dropped the ball.

"That might have been checkmate right there," Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said later.

The coach's decision was defensible, the quarterback's pass was accurate, and all that followed was just what everybody should have expected by now in a Utah-Air Force game.

Suddenly, the Utes went from leading by 18 points and coasting to leading by five points and struggling, needing two fourth-down stops to finally subdue the Falcons' latest — and presumably last — effort to make Whittingham miserable.

After surviving with a 28-23 victory, Whittingham jokingly threatened that Ute athletic director Chris Hill would be "a dead man" if he ever schedules the Falcons again, while his school moves out of the Mountain West Conference and into the Pac-12.

The boss is likely to heed that warning, the way he was agonizing in the visiting AD's booth. Yet for this season's purposes, all that matters is the Utes are still unbeaten (8-0).

Maybe this thing was far more difficult that it needed to be, but it was adequate. I'm breaking my promise not to compare Air Force's performances against TCU and Utah, but I'm also saying this: The Utes did what they had to do.

They won. Not everybody in the Top 10 could make that claim. Michigan State's loss to Iowa and Missouri's loss to Nebraska will enable the Utes to rise in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

Auburn and Oregon may have played more impressively than Utah, but that's irrelevant.

Not that the stress level was enjoyable for those watching or participating, necessarily.

"We wanted to do a lot more than survive," said Utah offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom. "I mean, there was a point when we didn't feel like this needed to be close."

But it was close, and the Utes steadied themselves. A defense that allowed two big plays for touchdowns in the fourth quarter came through when it counted.

The Utes gave up more yards (252) by halftime than their season average for a full game.

In the first half, takeaways were Utah's salvation. Brandon Burton, Lamar Chapman and Greg Bird caused fumbles and Bird, Brian Blechen and Christian Cox recovered them. Each turnover came at the end of a big play that would have given Air Force a first down in Utah territory.

In the second half, those big stops on fourth-and-short saved the Utes. Blechen and Bird teamed for one play; Bird and Derrick Shelby made the other.

After recording 231 total yards and seven points against TCU, the Falcons posted 411 yards and 23 points against Utah. As for whether the Falcons exposed anything that TCU can take advantage of, however, Whittingham said watching the videotape was not even worthwhile for his defense because the Horned Frogs' offense is so different.

Offensively, the Utes know they will need to upgrade next Saturday. Beating the Frogs will require a "perfect game," Wynn said, after an outing that was obviously not in that category. The Utes gained only 327 total yards, while playing conservatively.

This effort was good enough, though, against Air Force. And that's really the only opponent the Utes were playing Saturday. On Twitter: @tribkurt

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