No. 25 Notre Dame goes for its fourth straight win today when it hosts Navy at 3:30 p.m. ET (NBC). Here are five things to watch when the longtime rivals take the Notre Dame Stadium field later this afternoon.
Injured guys. Louis Nix III and Ishaq Williams are out, but coach Brian Kelly said that Chris Watt, Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate will play. Still, how fresh they are, and how much they can do, remains to be seen. We could see more Conor Hanratty at left guard, as he filled in when Watt (knee) went down in the Air Force game. And the defensive line already is stretched pretty thin without Nix, so if Day is limited, that could mean even more playing time for Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones. (With Kona Schwenke playing nose guard in place of Nix.) Regardless, it is another test for the Irish defense against a much more potent triple-option attack than the one they faced last week.
Freshmen (and other) receivers. Corey Robinson and Will Fuller reached the end zone last week for the first time. Falcons coach Troy Calhoun said after the game that the Irish's receiving corps was as deep as he has seen it. When others step up, it makes like easier for Tommy Rees, who does not have to just rely on TJ Jones. DaVaris Daniels and Troy Niklas have been solid, but when Ben Koyack, Chris Brown and James Onwualu can make plays, it helps open up the offense and make things a lot less predictable.
Running game. Speaking of opening up the offense ... I feel like I've been repeating myself all season in this category. Obviously Notre Dame lost its top-two running backs from last season and has dealt with injuries on the offensive line, but the running game has to be better, especially when this team goes into Stanford at the end of the month. Notre Dame threw the ball extremely effectively last week and had too many good opportunities downfield to pass up, but things won't always be that easy. The Irish averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last week, and on the season, they are averaging just 4.1 yards per rush. They are 95th nationally in rushing offense, tallying 136.4 yards on the ground per game.
Quarterback play. Andrew Hendrix played the entire fourth quarter of last week's game after Rees' strong outing, and he completed a 47-yard pass to Fuller that set up the quarterback's four-yard touchdown run. The much-needed work was certainly a step in the right direction for Hendrix, who remains the Irish's No. 2 signal caller and who, frankly, needs to do better than he did against USC if he gets thrust into meaningful game action again. While this game might not get out of hand like last week's, it is not out of the realm to expect the Irish to have a comfortable second-half lead. Even without it, it would not hurt to stick Hendrix in there more mid-game and get his feet wet.
Cornerback play. One of the reasons for Notre Dame's improved defensive play over the last two weeks has been tackling, especially from the cornerbacks. The secondary stepped up last week against Air Force, tallying 22 total tackles against the option attack. Navy does not present much of a threat passing the ball, but play on the edges is always key, and the Irish will need Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell -- who has come along very nicely lately -- to continue similar play this afternoon.