New Mexico-Colorado St. Preview
Colorado State got to enjoy its first week back in the Top 25 since 2003 in relaxing fashion with a bye.
Things could again come easily for the 22nd-ranked Rams when they return to Mountain West play Saturday at home against last-place New Mexico.
Winners of eight straight after a 49-22 victory over visiting Hawaii on Nov. 8, the Rams (9-1, 5-1) are tied with Ohio State for the third-longest streak in the FBS behind Florida State (26) and Marshall (11).
It's their longest winning streak since stringing nine together during an 11-2 season in 1997, and their first 9-1 start since beginning 10-1 in 1994 as the program enjoys a substantial turnaround under third-year coach Jim McElwain.
"It's a good feeling," quarterback Garrett Grayson said. "Obviously we've never been here - senior class has never been here. For the freshmen coming in this year, it's something hopefully they can get used to. I think that's going to be how it's going to be for many years to come."
Dating to last season, the Rams have won seven straight at Hughes Stadium by an average of 23.3 points. Since the start of 2013, their 550.9 yards of total offense in home games ranks fourth in the nation.
Plenty of that yardage has come from the combination of Grayson and Rashard Higgins, and the duo could again thrive against a New Mexico team that's allowing 498.4 yards per game.
Grayson, Colorado State's all-time leading passer, is tied for second in the FBS quarterback rating behind Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Mariota of Oregon. The senior has 26 touchdown passes with five interceptions, and his 9.72 yards per attempt ranks second behind Mariota while his 3,024 passing yards are 10th.
Higgins, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist, leads the nation with 142.2 receiving yards per game, though he missed the win over Hawaii with a shoulder injury. The sophomore remains tied for first in TD catches (13) and is second in receiving yards (1,280), while his 14 catches of 30-plus yards lead the FBS.
Higgins is expected back against the Lobos, and he needs 13 yards to set the school's single-season receiving record.
Without him against Hawaii, Grayson still threw four TDs. His last five games have totaled 13 passing scores, no interceptions and a 70.7 completion percentage.
"I think tonight we proved just how loaded we are across the board," Grayson said.
That includes running back Dee Hart, who followed McElwain from Alabama and has rushed for 219 yards and five TDs in the last two games. More could be in store against a New Mexico rush defense that's allowing 276.7 yards per game and a conference-high 6.0 yards per carry.
A conference title, however, will take some outside help in the closing weeks. The Rams' only loss came at Boise State on Sept. 6, so the Broncos, also 5-1, hold the head-to-head tiebreaker in the Mountain Division. Utah State is also 5-1, but Colorado State holds the tiebreaker over the Aggies.
The Rams have won four straight in the series with New Mexico, including a 66-42 road victory a season ago, but that doesn't mean McElwain was pleased with the effort.
"I don't think we've tackled them in two years," McElwain said. "I think the scores were about 500 to 501 and we just happened to be on the strong end of it."
That defense has at times made things interesting this season as well. Colorado State is giving up 424.4 yards per game, which ranks eighth in the Mountain West, and 170.8 are coming on the ground, where the Lobos (3-7, 1-5) put nearly their entire offensive focus.
New Mexico's 318.3 rushing yards per game and 6.2 per attempt both rank fourth nationally and lead the conference, but 751 rushing yards in the last two weeks has resulted in consecutive losses.
Last Saturday's 28-21 defeat at Utah State followed a 60-49 loss at home to Boise State, and the Lobos now complete a demanding stretch against the conference's top three teams.
"We have now played two of the best teams close, but it's frustrating because we are not yet there," coach Bob Davie told the school's official website. "We'll keep grinding. That's what I told our players after the game. I told them I feel bad. I feel sorry that their efforts aren't good enough to win."