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Already, U. faces crucial contest

For a variety of reasons, tonight's game between Utah and Air Force at Rice-Eccles Stadium (5:30 p.m., ESPN) has been labeled a big one.

Doomsayers are quick to point out that the loser will have little or no chance of winning the Mountain West Conference title with two setbacks. Strong words, considering it's still September.

"Obviously this is a very important football game for both teams since this early in the season we both have a loss in conference," said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry.

Utah linebacker Spencer Toone was a bit more direct.

"It's huge," he said. "This game is huge."

The Utes and Falcons are each coming off league losses. Utah fell to TCU 23-20 in overtime and Air Force dropped a 29-28 decision at home to Wyoming.

"Both teams have their backs against the wall," said Utah quarterback Brian Johnson. "We both have one loss in the conference, so it's going to be a dogfight."

It usually is when these teams square off. Over the decade covering 1994-2003, the average margin of victory was only four points. A year ago, the Utes trailed 14-0 before rallying for a 49-35 win.

"I like playing Air Force," Toone said. "It's two teams coming out and grinding it out in the trenches. The toughest team will win."

There's a secret to success, though U. coach Kyle Whittingham said the Falcons and their famed triple-option offense are determined to have 37 minutes of possession time, 80 snaps, 28 first downs and 60 percent or better success on third downs while grinding things out.

"We can't let them follow that model," Whittingham said. "We need to make first downs and keep moving the chains — keep their offense on the sidelines. The best way to defend the option is to keep it on the sidelines."

Utah's offense, which didn't fare so well in the loss at TCU, is up for the challenge.

"We've got Air Force this week, and the only thing we can do is work to get better," said running back Quinton Ganther, who still leads the MWC in rushing despite gaining just 47 yards against the Horned Frogs. "Of course that was disappointing. But I can't dwell on that. That was last week."

Despite drinking plenty of fluids — so many in fact that he made a lot of visits to the restroom the night before the game — Ganther cramped up in the Texas humidity. It started with his calf muscles and eventually plagued his hamstrings.

"I did everything I could do. I did everything they asked me to do," Ganther said. "Sometimes that's how it goes."

Not all was bad, though. Ganther was pleased the Utes scored a touchdown in the first quarter.

"We came out and started out fast. But we didn't finish. Games before we were starting slow and finishing fast," Ganther said. "We've just got to put it together now. We've got to start fast and finish fast. If we do that we are going to be a tough team to beat."

If adversity does come, however, Whittingham is confident the Utes won't panic and will just keep playing. It's how they operate. It worked last year when the Falcons took an early 14-point lead.

"It never hurts to start fast, though," Whittingham said. "It's always a good thing."

Especially, he continued, since the Falcons never quit no matter what the circumstances are in a game.

Whittingham was glad the Utes got to face TCU's option package last week. There are vast differences, however, between the Horned Frogs' double attack and Air Force's triple scheme.

"The Air Force option and its intricacies and complexity is light years ahead of what we saw at TCU," said Whittingham.

MWC home opener

Air Force (2-1, 1-1) at Utah (2-1, 0-1)

Today, 5:30 p.m.

Rice-Eccles Stadium


Radio: 700AM