SALT LAKE CITY Utah needed only one really good quarter to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time in three years.
The Utes allowed Air Force just 42 yards in the third quarter and withstood a tough fourth quarter, holding off the Falcons 38-35 Thursday night.
Utah led by 17, but the Falcons rallied with two late scores to make it close, a scene similar to last week’s overtime loss at TCU in which the Utes squandered a 10-point lead and had their 18-game winning streak halted.
‘‘We’ve got to be able to take a game and put it away when we have the opportunity. It’s the sign of a young defense,’’ Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ‘‘By game four now, we should be starting to grow up a little bit.’’
Brian Johnson passed for 305 yards and two touchdowns and ran for three scores the Utes (3-1, 1-1 Mountain West), who scored twice in seven seconds to break a 14-all tie and led the rest of the way.
Travis LaTendresse caught 10 passes, including a 12-yarder for a touchdown from Johnson, and finished with 139 yards for Utah after catching just eight passes in the first three games.
LaTendresse, who received an extra year of eligibility for a medical hardship, said he was just open more often Thursday.
‘‘We’ve got some weapons,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s going to be scary when we put it all together.’’
Utah hasn’t lost two games in a row since losing six straight in 2002. More importantly to Whittingham, the two-time defending MWC champions didn’t start out 0-2 in the conference.
‘‘That’s huge. Now we’re in the thick of the race,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘There’s so much parity in this conference, it would be hard for a team to sweep right through it like we did last year.’’
Johnson was 21-for-29 passing and scored on three 1-yard runs. He threw one interception, a ball tipped by a Utah player to one of the Falcons.
Ryan Williams ran for two touchdowns for Air Force (2-2, 1-2), setting one up with a 34-yard sprint up the middle on the opening drive. Adam Fitch rallied the Falcons in the fourth quarter, throwing a touchdown pass and running for a score with 1:08 remaining. But Utah recovered an onside kick for the second time in the quarter and ran out the clock.
‘‘Something just happened in the third quarter. I can’t really tell you what,’’ said Jason Brown, who caught a touchdown pass to get the Falcons within 10 late in the fourth quarter.
After gaining 242 yards in the first half, Air Force gained just 42 in the third quarter and struggled after Johnson’s 60-yard pass to Brian Hernandez with about 11 minutes left in the third quarter put Utah up 38-21.
Eric Weddle recovered a fumble at the Air Force 12 to set up a touchdown and had an interception. Casey Evans also picked off a pass for the Utes and recovered the final kickoff to seal the victory.
Air Force, which lost 29-28 to Wyoming last weekend after missing an extra point, got too far behind to complete a comeback. Kicking troubles and turnovers again slowed the Falcons.
‘‘I don’t know what else you would have liked as a football fan, although I didn’t enjoy this game,’’ Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said.
The 21 points in the second half were a stark contrast from the first, when Utah led 31-21 after Dan Beardall’s 46-yard field goal with 3 seconds left.
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