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Sakoda’s last-second field goal lifts Utes over Air Force

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — While his teammates furiously moved into scoring position in the closing seconds of a tie game, Utah kicker Louie Sakoda calmly warmed up on the sidelines.

Called into duty with just three seconds remaining, the sophomore kicked a 37-yard field goal to lift the Utes to a dramatic 17-14 victory over Air Force on a chilly evening at Falcon Field.

The win assured Utah (7-4) of a fourth consecutive bowl appearance, most likely the Armed Services Bowl in Fort Worth on Dec. 23.

"Fantastic," Sakoda said after being carried across the field by a pair of teammates in a jubilant postgame celebration.

The soft-spoken kicker said that everything felt good when he took the field for the game-deciding score. He waited through three timeouts before kicking the ball.

Even so, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he knew Sakoda would drill the kick — praising him as no ordinary kicker.

The final drive covered 60 yards on 13 plays and took the final 3:55 off the clock. Utah converted on third down twice to keep the drive alive.

"We just wanted to get into position and give Louie a chance," said quarterback Brett Ratliff, who completed 24 of 38 passes for 236 yards in Utah's road finale.

The Utes, however, used cornerback Eric Weddle to reach the end zone. The versatile senior ran the ball 12 times for a game-high 73 yards and two touchdowns — scoring on a 6-yard run in the first quarter and a 4-yard burst in the fourth.

Whittingham said things are better in any aspect of the game when Weddle is involved.

"When he's got the ball in his hands something good usually happens," Whittingham explained.

Weddle finished with eight tackles on defense, a unit that held Air Force's famed triple-option attack to its lowest rushing total of the season — 116 yards on 41 carries.

"It was one of the best games I've been around in my life," defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said. "The kids fought, fought and fought. We tell them all the time Air Force will never, ever quit and they never do."

The Falcons rallied from deficits of 7-0 and 14-7. Quarterback Shaun Carney threw for 218 yards on 16-of-22 passing, including a 6-yard scoring strike to Victor Thompson. Carney later scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 4:07 remaining to set up the dramatic finish.

"The scoreboard doesn't reflect what we would have hoped for, or planned for. I'll tell you one thing, I'm very proud of our football team. They fought their guts out," said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said after his team fell to 4-6 overall. "The people in this community ought to feel good about the type of young men representing us in our Air Force in positions of leadership in this country.

"Because those guys, despite what the scoreboard says, they're not losers. They're warriors and they're winners," he added. "And I'll go to my grave saying that."

The Falcons had two chances to close the gap in the second quarter but came up empty. Junior kicker Zach Sasser was wide left on field-goal attempts from 35 and 34 yards out. He entered the game having missed just one of eight kicks from 39 yards or less this season.

"This was a battle," said Andersen, who noted it was unbelievable to outrush Air Force (119-116) and hold the Falcons to just 14 points.

"We outrushed the Air Force. When's the last time that's happened?" Whittingham said before crediting the offense as well. "When the plays had to be made, Brett and the offense stepped up and got it done."

Weddle said the Utes were determined to have everyone do their job. Middle linebacker Joe Jiannoni responded to the task by racking up a game-high 15 tackles, including 2.5 behind the line of scrimmage.

"It was a great game for us," Weddle said. "It's huge. A November to remember. That's our slogan and that's the way we're playing."

Next up: BYU Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"That's going to be the biggest game of the year," Ratliff said. "I'm way excited for it."

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com