Notre Dame looks to make it three in a row today as the Irish take on Air Force at 5 p.m. ET at Falcon Stadium. Here are five things to watch when the two teams square off in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Quarterback play. Tommy Rees practiced all week and is ready to go, but if Notre Dame learned anything from its tight win last week over USC, it is that the Irish need some insurance at the position. The best way to get that would be to give Andrew Hendrix more meaningful action, and not just in zone-read packages. Couple that need with the possibility that the Irish are cruising to a win by the third or fourth quarter, and it would not be surprising at all to see Hendrix running the show more than he has at any point this season.
Steve Elmer's time to shine. The highly touted freshman was the first man from the class of 2013 to initially commit to the Irish way back when, and now he finds himself with more responsibility than any other rookie on the roster. Elmer is the Irish's starting right guard moving forward, as Christian Lombard was shut down for the season after having an operation to remove a herniated disk from his back. It is an obvious blow on a line that had two first-year starters, but Elmer had already been the next man in at virtually every other position on the offensive line, and he will now get some useful early experience in what most are expecting to be a highly successful college career. Still, Notre Dame must toe the line of predictably in the ground game now, as it has two fifth-year seniors on the left side of its line and a true and a redshirt freshman on the right side.
Defensive line without Louis Nix. Nix took a tough shot into the shoulder last week that remained sore, but coach Brian Kelly said that knee tendinitis is what kept the redshirt junior from traveling for this contest. Nix is the Irish's best defensive player, despite option football not being, in Kelly's words, "his cup of tea." Kona Schwenke will get another start, this time at nose guard, in what has been a bit of a wild campaign for him after he started three games at end in place of Sheldon Day. Day, by the way, appeared to cross the last major hurdle of his return from an ankle sprain last week and should be ready to go. Perhaps we will see more of Isaac Rochell as well, which could mean he finally gets to go 1-on-1 with his brother, Falcons left tackle Matt.
Early start. This is worth keeping an eye on considering that the Irish have given up the first points in five of their last six games. They are also adjusting to the high altitude of Colorado and are coming off their first home win over their archrival USC in 12 years. They also were off from classes this week because of the school's fall break. Air Force, meanwhile, has lost six in a row and has not taken the field in a whopping 16 days after losing to San Diego State on Oct. 10.
Discipline, especially on the edges. It is worth repeating, especially with Navy on the schedule next week: The Irish must stay disciplined on defense, and especially on the edges. Most of the upperclassmen on defense have had more than their fair share of games against option offenses so far, but this is a new kind of test for freshman Dog linebacker Jaylon Smith, and the kind of test that Danny Spond would thrive in. This was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts for Spond, a Littleton, Colo., native who was forced to retire during camp because of hemiplegic migraines. His impact has not been lost, however, as he has been in Smith's ear as a coach every step of the way, something that should pay dividends in a game like this one against Air Force.