Utah, AFA battle in key MWC matchup

Updated: October 31, 2003, 2:22 PM ET

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Heading down the home stretch, four teams have just one loss in a tight Mountain West Conference race.

Two of them -- Utah and Air Force -- meet Saturday at the academy in a game that could have significant bearing on the outcome. But if you believe Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, even the loser on Saturday shouldn't count itself out.

"Somebody said early in the season this could be a year -- because of the parity in the conference -- that the conference champion could lose two football games," DeBerry said. "And I think that's very, very possible."

Utah and Air Force have identical records of 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the conference. Defending champion Colorado State and New Mexico are both 5-3 overall and 2-1 in the MWC.

Utah suffered its first conference loss last week, bowing to New Mexico 47-35 and dropping from the Associated Press' Top 25.

After a 5-0 start, Air Force has lost two of its last three games, so last week's bye might have come at an ideal time.

"The open date has probably enhanced our football team a little bit," DeBerry said. "Our team will be rested."

That's a concern for Utah coach Urban Meyer, since his opponent hasn't played since Oct. 16.

"We have to go to their home course when they've had 16 days to prepare," Meyer said. "And we have a tailback that's injured."

Brandon Warfield, who led the conference in rushing through the first seven games, sprained his left knee against New Mexico and will be out two to three weeks.

"We'll be lucky if we get him back this season," Meyer said.

That should put additional pressure on Ute quarterback Alex Smith, who withstood New Mexico's relentless blitzing last week to throw for 220 yards and four touchdowns.

"They're tied for the conference lead with us," Smith said. "There's a little more of a sense of urgency. We can still accomplish all of our goals that we had at the beginning of the season, and winning this game is the key to that."

Last year's loss to the Falcons still eats at Utah. The Utes blew a 26-6 halftime lead, committing six turnovers in a 30-26 loss. Chance Harridge threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Don Clark with 17 seconds left for the clincher.

It was the third of what would eventually be six straight losses for Utah.

"That game is what I think of when I think of last season," Smith said. "We were up by 20 at halftime, and somehow with under a minute left they ended up beating us. It seemed like the Air Force game was the start of the ball rolling downhill."

Smith, taking over for the injured Brett Elliott, has led the Utes to five wins in his six starts. Air Force's triple option ranks second in the nation in rushing, averaging 294.8 yards per game.

Five of the last six meetings have been decided by seven or fewer points. Air Force has won the last three meetings.

"We've been fortunate to beat this team the last three years," DeBerry said, "but it's always been a dogfight."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index