AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- On his way into the locker room, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham shook his head in exasperation and muttered to himself in relief.
It was that kind of game.
Utah's defense forced five turnovers and stopped Air Force twice on downs in the final quarter, helping the eighth-ranked Utes hold off the Falcons for a 28-23 win Saturday to set up a showdown with No. 4 TCU next weekend.
This was far from easy, even when the Utes (8-0, 5-0 Mountain West) had a 28-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
Then again, games against the Falcons (5-4, 3-3) never are for the Utes. Of their previous 13 meetings, only one has been decided by double digits, and last season's game went into overtime, before the Utes won.
That's why Whittingham kiddingly said he doesn't want Utah athletic director Chris Hill to schedule the Falcons anymore when the team bolts the Mountain West for the Pac-10 next season.
Only, he wasn't kidding.
The triple-option offense is too tricky to prepare for in that short of span.
"I'm glad they are not on our schedule," said Whittingham, whose team ran their record to 8-0 for the third time in the last seven years. "They never quit -- ever."
With the Falcons game concluded, the embargo was lifted on talking about TCU. The Utes will host the Horned Frogs on Saturday, a marquee matchup between two hopeful BCS busters.
The Frogs routed Utah 55-28 last season in Fort Worth, Texas.
And payback has been on the minds of the Utes.
"Can't wait," said safety Greg Bird, who forced a fumble and recovered another. "I'm excited. We're going to bring it to them."
The Utes are going to destroy the film from the Air Force game. It doesn't do any good against TCU, a team that doesn't really run the option, and doesn't resemble the Falcons in any way.
"The tape is irrelevant, particularly on the defensive side of the ball," Whittingham said.
Still, it would've made for entertaining viewing.
The Utes forced three fumbles and intercepted Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson twice.
Air Force's comeback, though, had Whittingham muttering after the game.
Jefferson rallied the Falcons. He broke away for a career-long 59-yard touchdown run and moments later threw a 49-yard TD pass to Kyle Halderman to make it a 28-23 game with 10:22 remaining.
The Falcons went for the 2-point conversion, but Bird stuffed Jefferson at the goal line. Bird later had a big hit on Asher Clark on fourth-and-3, giving the ball back to Utah, which drove into field goal range.
However, Joe Phillips' 42-yard attempt clanged off the right goal post, keeping the score 28-23 with just over 3 minutes left. It also halted Phillips' streak of 18 straight makes.
The Falcons again turned the ball over on downs when Jefferson was stopped short on fourth-and-3 at the Falcons 33.
Air Force got the ball back one last time at its 1 with 19 seconds left. The Falcons drove out to the 35, but Jefferson was sacked by Chaz Walker on the game's final play.
"They came roaring back and gave us a full 60 minutes as they do every single year," Whittingham said. "Thank goodness for that: these are the guys defending our country when they're done playing ball. I told our guys, when the season is over, they're not going to the NFL combine, they're ... strapping into an F-16. A football game isn't going to intimidate them."
Jefferson passed for a career-high 201 yards and ran for another 67 as the Falcons dropped their third straight game.
The five turnovers, though, left Jefferson frustrated.
"There are a lot of things we wish we could have done better," Jefferson said. "We didn't do it, and that's why we lost. ... They did a good job of taking the ball away from us today."
For the Utes, their attention now turns toward TCU, something they've been avoiding until now.
"I've been taking it one game at a time, but honestly we all knew when the day was," said quarterback Jordan Wynn, who threw for 148 yards and a touchdown pass. "It's going to be a showdown."