Air Force likely to prove tough test

By Bryan Chouinard , Asst. Sports Editor

After two weeks on the road, the Utes return to Rice-Eccles Stadium this weekend to take on Air Force Academy in their third Mountain West Conference matchup of the season.

The Utes are riding a three-game winning streak after losing to No. 11-ranked Oregon in September and look to stay undefeated at home in their third home game of the season. But when Ute fans look back on the 2009 season, this weekend’s matchup against Air Force could prove to be Utah’s toughest test at home this season.

The Air Force Academy is the lone team in the Mountain West Conference that has a winning record against the Utes8212;leading the all-time series 14-11 despite Utah winning five of the past six matchups. At home, the Utes are 6-7 all-time against the Falcons, who always seem to play the conference’s top teams close.

“(Air Force) is tough,” said Utah team captain Stevenson Sylvester. “They played TCU to a three-point game. They are a great team; don’t let their record or anything fool you. They are a tough team year in and year out, and that’s what you get from those academy teams.”

Air Force is coming off a 10-0 shutout of Wyoming after suffering back-to-back losses against Navy (16-13 overtime) and TCU (20-17).

It will be up to Sylvester and the Utah defense to stop the triple-option offense that Air Force has become known for. Air Force, unlike most teams, uses an extremely run-heavy offense rather than striving for a more orthodox run-pass attack.

“With Air Force, they may run 80 plays a game8212;75 of them will be runs,” Sylvester said. “You need to load up on the run, but you can’t shy away. Because as soon as we do, they’ll hit you with a pass. We need to be disciplined and be ready for everything that comes at us.”

So far this season, Air Force has used a dual-quarterback system run by sophomores Tim Jefferson and Connor Dietz. The duo has combined for only 72 pass attempts on the season, 13 fewer attempts than the tandem’s combined rushing attempts in 2009. They combined for three touchdowns through the air to go along with their three rushing touchdowns. For the first time this season, the Utes will be forced to prepare for a dual-quarterback system, something head coach Kyle Whittingham said he doesn’t suspect will be a problem.

“(The two quarterbacks) are very similar in style,” Whittingham said. “They don’t change the offense much based on who’s in the game, therefore we don’t have any different scheme regardless of who’s in. Dietz is a bit of a more effective runner than Jefferson, but Jefferson has been the more effective thrower to this point.”

Dietz leads the Falcons with six yards per carry and is fourth on the team in total rushing. Alongside Dietz or Jefferson in the backfield will be one of four Air Force running backs, three of which average more than five yards per carry. Leading the group of Falcon running backs is Park City native Jared Tew. The 6-foot junior leads the Falcons in rushing yards (422) and touchdowns (four) and is ranked fifth in the conference in yards per game, averaging 60.3 yards per contest. As a team, the Falcons average 4.5 yards per carry and have rushed for 12 touchdowns this year.

“They do a lot of misdirection stuff,” Sylvester said. “They are able to do a lot of different things out of one formation and they’re just good at what they do. It’s hard to stop them, but what we need to do is be smart and play disciplined.”

Free safety Robert Johnson will continue to stay hot after hauling in four interceptions in the past two games but said he knows that against Air Force, interceptions will be hard to come by.

“Air Force has their own unique plays,” Johnson said. “They will probably only pass once or twice a game, so you have to ready for anything. If they do decide to try to throw, I have to show up that one time. If I can show up that one time and help by making an impact play, then it will work out good for us.”

On the offensive side of the ball, look for junior Eddie Wide to continue his success as he looks for his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game after taking over the starting role from Matt Asiata. For the first time since Asiata’s injury, Wide and backups Sausan Shakerin and Shaky Smithson will be healthy while playing Air Force.

This weekend’s matchup will be the first home day game for the Utes, and kick-off is slated for 2 p.m.

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Thien sok/The Daily Utah Chronicle

Stevenson Sylvester and the defense will have the task of stopping Air Force?s run-heavy offense.