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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Even as Colorado State rolls up wins this season, coach Jim McElwain can't quite forget the game in which he felt like his team quit.
Two years ago at Air Force, the Rams were drubbed 42-21 — and it could've been much, much worse, in McElwain's estimation.
He's harped on that loss with No. 21 Colorado State (10-1, 6-1 Mountain West) returning to Falcon Stadium on Friday and putting its nine-game winning streak on the line against Air Force (8-3, 4-3).
McElwain described that game on Sept. 29, 2012, as "the worst day ever, whether I was playing or in my coaching career."
"To see the quit and the disrespect for the game of football and Colorado State University that we showed that day," McElwain added. "We've grown since then. Still, it doesn't deny the taste of walking off that field."
This version of the Rams is off to their best start since 1994. What's more, they're trying to keep the pressure on Boise State, which leads the Mountain Division.
Colorado State needs to beat Air Force in the regular season finale and hope Utah State wins at Boise State — the Broncos are a nine-point favorite — to sneak into the league's title game.
Won't be easy for Colorado State, though, given that Air Force is 5-0 at home and has trailed for only 12 minutes, 47 seconds of game time.
For the second straight week, the Rams will encounter an option offense. They bottled up New Mexico in a 58-20 win, holding the Lobos' high-powered rushing attack in check most of the game. But they realize it's a different task with Air Force, which averages nearly 275 yards on the ground.
"I told the team after the New Mexico game to tear off the rearview mirror. That one is over," McElwain said. "We've got a short week against a team we have the ultimate respect for."
And one that embarrassed the Rams the last time they set foot in Falcon Stadium.
"They were staring at the clock in the second half and snapping it at one," McElwain said. "They could have been at 100 (points). That was embarrassing."
Falcons coach Troy Calhoun maintains they didn't let up, though.
"No, sir. We didn't," said Calhoun, whose team is 35-14 at home since he began in 2007. "Everybody we play, we have the utmost respect for.
"We appreciate the chance to play football and whoever we play, we know on the other side they are going to work hard. That's the way the game should be played."
Things to consider as Colorado State and Air Force contend for the Ram-Falcon Trophy, an awarded presented annually since 1980:
PASSING MARKS: Already the holder of 13 school records, quarterback Garrett Grayson goes for another at Air Force. The senior needs 11 passing attempts to break the mark held by Kelly Stouffer (1,015 attempts from 1984-86).
IRONMAN TRAINING: Tailback Dee Hart almost looked as if he were training for a triathlon last week. The graduate transfer from Alabama spent time working out in a pool leading up to the New Mexico game. That Saturday, he rode the stationary bike to stay loose in between offensive possessions. And when his number was called, he ran for 230 yards. He also tied a school record with six TDs — five rushing and another on a reception. It was a video game-like performance. "I'm not keen on video games," Hart said. "I like the field."
MEETING OF THE MINDS: The other day, McElwain chatted with legendary CSU coach Sonny Lubick. They discussed all things Rams, including the rivalry with Air Force and the team's recent success. Lubick knows plenty about success, since he took the Rams to new heights in his 15-year tenure. "(Lubick) was good enough to give me insight," McElwain said. "It's invaluable."
KALE IS GOOD FOR YOU: Don't underestimate senior QB Kale Pearson's arm just because he's running the option. Pearson's thrown for 14 TDs this season, which matches the most by a Falcons QB in the option era. Tim Jefferson also threw for 14 TDs in 2011. Bob Parker holds the all-time school record, throwing 21 TD passes in 1970.
TAILBACK: Leading rusher Jacobi Owens is out for the season with a foot injury. The Falcons are still loaded in the backfield with Devin Rushing, along with fullbacks Shayne Davern and D.J. Johnson. "Whoever they put in there, we've got to tackle," McElwain said.
AP freelance writer Dale Bublitz contributed.