A "good start."

That's how Utah coach Kyle Whittingham described his team's preparations for Saturday's home game against Air Force.

"There's always a lot of reps required to prepare for these guys," Whittingham said. "Our guys have done a good job so far."

When you prepare for Air Force, he noted, you think assignment football. That's the first thing that comes to mind.

"We call it 1/11th defense, where everybody on the field has their one job that they've got to take care of," Whittingham said. "If everyone does their 1/11th we'll be OK."

Any breakdowns in that, he explained, and there's the potential for a big play.

With strong safety Joe Dale sidelined for three to four weeks with an unspecified knee injury, Whittingham wouldn't say who would start in his place.

Nothing changed Tuesday.

Whittingham said the decision will be kept in-house.

"Why tip our hand?"

As for the plan to put Utah's 11 best defenders on the field against Air Force, Whittingham acknowledged things are pretty well set.

"Yeah, I think we've got our 11 best out there," he said.

Whittingham, of course, declined to get more specific.

C'MON DOWN: When a reporter asked Whittingham why the Utes were struggling with ball security — 16 fumbles (seven lost) in six games — the coach had a quick comeback.

"Good question. If you've got the answer come on out to practice and you can help us with it," he said. "Because we've been doing everything that we've done in the past and more."

Utah's "lock, load and finish" approach teaches ball security.

Whittingham said the technique of this year's team is not bad. The players have just got to do a better job.

EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said Utah's running game has a pecking order — No. 1 Eddie Wide and No. 2 Sausan Shakerin, supplemented by Luke Matthews and Shaky Smithson ... Free safety Robert Johnson is tied for No. 1 in the nation in interceptions (0.83 per game). He's one of just five players with five picks this season ... The Utes need just one more win to become bowl eligible. They've gone bowling the past six seasons.

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com