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Pregame Six Pack: Going up to Air Force

Oct 25, 2013, 12:43 PM EDT

USC Notre Dame Football AP

As we prepared for Notre Dame to take on a 1-6 Air Force team that is winless in five Mountain West games, the storylines on the field between the Irish and Falcons seemed few and far between. For better or worse, the Irish coaching staff had seemingly “figured out” the option attack after their ugly opening attempt against Navy four seasons ago. And Troy Calhoun’s squad has been decimated by injuries, a handicap that too often is mortal at a place like the service academies.

But all of that changed yesterday with the news that Louis Nix won’t be traveling to Colorado Springs with his teammates, left home to rest a balky knee and heal a wounded shoulder. Add to that the loss of Christian Lombard and the insertion of true freshman Steve Elmer into the starting lineup, and all of a sudden there is some intrigue in a game that still hovers around a 20-point spread.

The series has been closer than you’d expect over the past six games. The Irish are 4-2 against the Falcons dating back to 1996, with two of those victories (’96 and ’00) needing overtime. Let’s open up this week’s pregame six pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Air Force play for the 30th time.

***

Don’t wait until tomorrow morning, make sure you have CBS Sports Network on your cable package. 

Let’s get the public service announcement out of the way first. Not everybody gets the CBS Sports Network. Available in 99 million homes, CBS’s “growing” cable sports channel, with programming consisting of basically Jim Rome and a few other studio shows, is usually a pay add on to your package.

(I added it before the season kicked off, to catch the USC-Hawaii game.)

So before you come to the live-blog frantically searching for a channel update or website link, spend a few minutes this afternoon — and maybe a few dollars — to add the channel, or find a friend that’s got the game and be social.

Former Irish great Aaron Taylor will be in the both with CBS Sports’ Andrew Catalon and Lauren Gardner. For many the game won’t be broadcast in HD (though DirecTV and Dish Network provide it), so it’ll be a retro game watch for a large group of us.

But take care of it now or you’re stuck with me in the live blog.

***

Without Louis Nix anchoring the defensive front, expect to see a lot more Kona Schwenke. 

During his final season in South Bend, Kona Schwenke has emerged as an almost super-sub, sliding into Sheldon Day’s role when the sophomore defensive end was nursing an ankle injury back to health. Now Schwenke will shift back into the nose guard position, subbing for Nix at the position he’s played the past few seasons.

Schwenke won’t likely be asked to play the traditional “two-gap” defensive tackle that Nix does so well. Rather he’ll join a rotation that’ll feature a steady dose of four down linemen, with Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams and a host of others helping out up front.

Also moving inside will be Stephon Tuitt, who enters Saturdays game on a straight-up hot streak, trouble for Air Force, considering Tuitt has been so good against option teams.

“My job is to be in the middle, to be a Louis Nix,” Tuitt said this week.

Still, Schwenke’s rise has been plenty impressive, with his final season in South Bend showing the Hawaiian to be a productive performer and a great developmental project. Depth issues forced Schwenke onto the field earlier than the staff would have liked. But for a kid that arrived as a 230-pound outside linebacker and was an afterthought to most in recruiting,  seeing an impressive 303-pounder who has been really productive this season has been a fun process to watch.

***

Heading back home to Colorado, Danny Spond takes comfort in finding what’s next.

There have to be a lot of emotions going through senior linebacker Danny Spond today as the Colorado native heads home for a game that’s likely been circled for a long time. Of course, Spond won’t be playing on Saturday, but rather helping coach the outside linebackers.

It’s that unique role that Spond talked about Wednesday. And one that he’s handled with the type of courage and grace that you come to expect from Spond, who embodies what Notre Dame hopes for in student-athletes.

“I know they can’t see me out there as a player, but they know what I’ve accomplished here and how hard I’ve worked to establish my role,” Spond said of the large group of family, friends and former coaches that’ll be watching the Irish take on Air Force. “Just for them to be out there supporting our team is enough for me.”

Perhaps one of the hardest parts to hear from Spond was that the football bug hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

“Each game gets a little bit harder,” Spond told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “It’ll probably be in my mind another five years, but I’m at peace with it and I understand that this is my role now.”

Spond does his best to fill that void by doing what he did as a player: Grind. He hasn’t missed a practice or a meeting with his position group. He still logs a lot of hours in the Gug. And he’s taken a philosophical approach that’s supported by his strong faith that will surely get him through life after football.

“Knowing that everything happens for a reason, and whatever that reason might be, I know it’s what’s best for me,” Spond said. “To really just understand that this wasn’t what’s in my plan and I’m excited for what’s next.”

***

***

A few years after the Niklas brothers shared the field, it’s time for the Rochell’s to go head-to-head. 

The last time Air Force visited South Bend, the Niklas family had a special moment that paired Troy (then an outside linebacker) on the same field as his brother Austin. That baton is being passed down to the Rochells, where Irish freshman defensive end Isaac will have a chance to play against his brother Matt, a sophomore offensive tackle for Air Force.

The Colorado Springs Gazette’s Brent Briggeman caught up with the matriarch of the Rochell family, who talked about how special it’ll be to potentially see one son matched up against the other at the line of scrimmage.

“I don’t know how they’ll even keep a straight face,” Gina Rochell told the Gazette.

With the need to keep bodies fresh along the defensive front, the Irish staff will likely lean on young players like Rochell and Jarron Jones more (Jones will be coming directly from Rochester, New York, where he attended a family funeral). And that’s very exciting for the freshman from Georgia.

“He’s pretty excited about playing the game. He may even be matched up against his brother,” Kelly said on Thursday. “I think more than anything else, he’s excited about playing. Regardless of whether he’s playing against his brother or not, he knows he’s going to get into the game. He’s really excited about that.”

Briggeman’s profile on the Rochell family is worth reading, if only for the quotes he got from Matt, who talked about the primary difference between the two brothers’ college football experience.

“The only big difference I see is that they get up at like 9 and we get up at 6,” Matt told the Gazette. “He’s still busy, but he’s not getting up at 6. The big thing is sleep that I see; and food, actually. They eat a lot more food.”

(Score some points for Training Table!)

Back to the more important subject matter, the Rochell family won’t have too hard of time feeling like winners regardless of who walks off the field victorious on Saturday.

“You see your two kids out there and one’s playing for Notre Dame and one’s playing for the Air Force Academy,” Mrs. Rochell said. “It doesn’t get any better than that, academically, as far as I’m concerned.”

***

Tommy Rees may be healthy enough to be the starter, but for the health of the position Andrew Hendrix needs to get some snaps. 

While the Irish got good news that Tommy Rees would be healthy and capable of starting against Air Force, they absolutely need to make sure Andrew Hendrix is ready to play better football if called upon. And that opportunity might be easy to get against an Air Force defense that’s probably the worst group the Irish will play this season.

Hendrix isn’t as bad as we saw last weekend against USC. But Brian Kelly talked about how important it was to get him playing better, especially with the Irish staff trying desperately to hold onto Malik Zaire’s redshirt.

“I think what Andrew has to do is he’s got to take that practice now and he’s got to take that into games,” Kelly said earlier this week. “And hopefully he’ll use the experience that he had against USC and he’ll take that as a learning experience and translate what he does in practice now into games.”

During his weekly Thursday update, Kelly talked about the rep breakdown at practice, particularly the added snaps that both Hendrix and Zaire took this week. For those wondering why Kelly wasn’t quick to pull Hendrix last Saturday and insert Zaire into the game, it’s because the freshman quarterback had taken virtually zero reps with the first team offense this season. That changed this week.

“This week he got a handful of first team reps,” Kelly said.

Still, the priority was getting Hendrix up to speed, and the senior quarterback took more snaps Wednesday with the first team than he had all year, and if he does play, Hendrix will likely have access to more of the playbook, not just running packages.

In many ways, this could be a tryout for Hendrix and a potential fifth year. Next year, Everett Golson will be back and Zaire will be ready to compete. But will the Irish staff keep Hendrix around to battle for the No. 2 job over put themselves in a similar situation to this year, where they have a starter (an undersized one at that), an untested back-up, and a freshman that likely needs to redshirt?

Saturday might give us a clue.

While Cam McDaniel became a viral sensation this week, the running back job is still up for grabs. 

Cam McDaniel went from anonymous Notre Dame running back to viral internet sensation thanks to some faulty equipment. McDaniel’s helmet popped off (again) after a run against the Trojans, producing a bizarre (and handsome) photo that got plenty of people talking. It even got McDaniel booked for a segment on the TODAY show this morning, where Savannah Guthrie even asked for his digits. (Remember to dial 4 first for the dorms, Sav…)

Notoriety aside, Saturday will be an interesting status check for the crowded running back position. Will George Atkinson get the first chance to run against the undermanned Falcons rush defense? Can Tarean Folston get back on the field and earn himself more snaps? Will Amir Carlisle get more production out of his touches? Is Will Mahone healthy and ready to fight his way back onto the field?

The Falcons are giving up over 220 yards a game on nearly five yards a carry. And with the calendar about to turn to November, this is the time of year where the Irish ground game needs to work its way into dominance, especially with a favorable schedule the next few weeks.

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  1. domerboyirish - Oct 25, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Last week I think Hendrix was just mentally unprepared to enter the game. You would think that a back up QB would constantly have the mindset that he may have to go in for the very next snap and be able to perform. What does this say about TR’s mental toughness in those performances last year when he was called on to relieve EG?

    • dickasman - Oct 25, 2013 at 3:56 PM

      Andrew, I hope you’re right and you play better this week.

      • domerboyirish - Oct 25, 2013 at 5:02 PM

        I hope so too. I’d hate to let you guys down again.

      • dickasman - Oct 26, 2013 at 3:00 AM

        At least fake an injury so I can get my boy hackenburg Zaire some PT babyyyy!

      • domerboyirish - Oct 26, 2013 at 10:18 AM

        Is ‘deer in the headlights’ considered a medical condition? If so, get my ass out of there!

      • dickasman - Oct 26, 2013 at 4:11 PM

        Andrew, you will make an excellent Gynocologist making good dough. I’m not worry about you son!

  2. notredameirish1980 - Oct 25, 2013 at 3:39 PM

    Can’t imagine that Cam is getting any ribbing from his teammates. Sure makes up for the ESPN clip with the tackling machine!

  3. dickasman - Oct 25, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    Hey does any one kinda wish the government shutdown still lasted so we get a automatic W? Ah well, watch your knees boys, watch your knees. One thing I hate about playing the national guard teams is their dam chop blocks and cut blocks.

    • wisner74 - Oct 25, 2013 at 8:32 PM

      You’re right about that, dick. I always worry about those chop blocks. Not a dirty play, but dangerous nonetheless, and we’ve had some players injured over the years.

  4. dickasman - Oct 25, 2013 at 3:49 PM

    I hope both tommy n Hendrix like not get injured but have to sit out couple plays so BK is forced to play Zaire, HOTT!

    • domerboyirish - Oct 25, 2013 at 5:03 PM

      can you say Luke Massa?

      • dickasman - Oct 26, 2013 at 3:01 AM

        Yuck!!!

      • domerboyirish - Oct 26, 2013 at 10:21 AM

        Seriously, if we somehow avoid playing down to our competition and build a big lead, like 60-3, 2 minutes to play, the third string QB to come in for the Victory formation is? LUKE!

      • dickasman - Oct 26, 2013 at 4:12 PM

        I think we have better chance of seeing Zaire before you Luke.

  5. dickasman - Oct 25, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    What’s w this CBS sports line crap? ND really need to think about having their own network and streaming and broadcasting ALL of the games online.

    I’d make a donation for that and the jumbo tron! Gimme one o them ones Jerry Jones got!

  6. heartofgoldandblue - Oct 25, 2013 at 4:48 PM

    Hendrix has always seemed to play so tight to me. With all the talk of not preparing a backup QB, it’s hard for me to accept that as the reason he throws two in the dirt and one to the other team in gis first few attempts the other night. He reminds me very much of Crist in that way. Both have well above average physical skills, both strong arms and both with very good athletism, and both were pretty highly touted prospects. Neither of them ever seemed to settle into games. I painfully remember Crist routinely overthrowing wide open guys and see the same inaccuracy with Hendrix. It’s hard to believe he couldn’t have been developed over the last 3+ years given how intelligent he is (Assumption). Neither were just never able to translate their skills to live games.

    • nudeman - Oct 25, 2013 at 7:38 PM

      “It’s hard to believe he couldn’t have been developed over the last 3+ years given how intelligent he is ”

      That’s the fatal flaw in the logic, right there.
      Being book smart has nothing to do with football smarts.
      Getting an “A” in Anatomy hardly guarantees the ability to read defenses and make decisions in the pocket

      You know what Hendrix is? He’s the anti-Montana.
      Joe was not un-talented physically at all, but he didn’t have Hendrix’s size, speed or strength.
      But he could settle the fu** down in the pocket and make good football decisions.

      • heartofgoldandblue - Oct 25, 2013 at 10:10 PM

        Agreed Nude

        I guess my point is that with being the academic he is said to be, you would think he has the ability to absorb the playbook, progress through his reads and make checks with the defense. When it comes to executing it seems like his brain gets in the way in that he’s too analytical. Didn’t think of the Montana comparison but was thinking of the comparison to Golson. Kelly has made comments that Golson has the art part down… Hendrix is definitely the opposite. Certainly no art to his game just seems like he’s always thinking (in a bad way). And the kid has false start on like 50% of his plays. I like many of us had high hopes for him but it seems like he just can’t “play”.

  7. oct1868 - Oct 25, 2013 at 5:47 PM

    I was at 96 game did go to overtime but ND lost.

    • wisner74 - Oct 25, 2013 at 8:41 PM

      Was that the game when Glenn Earl blocked an AF extra point attempt at the end of regulation?

  8. obie1818 - Oct 25, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    Fios wants me to buck up for some crappy sports package to get CBS sports channel. Anyone know where to watch online? Help Irish fans !!!!!

  9. jmfinsd - Oct 25, 2013 at 8:48 PM

    FYI – Josh Norris of RotoWorld (powered by NBC) doesn’t list Tuitt in his first 32 picks. That may change with 2nd half of season and Tuitt getting in better shape, but I don’t think there’s any chance Tuitt leaves if he’s not a guaranteed 1st round pick.

    Nix is ranked 12th because he has “let down” some this season. I don’t know Norris’s body of work, but he may be a stats/style over substance guy.

  10. getsome99 - Oct 25, 2013 at 9:57 PM

    Haha. I have the channel on FIOS. Had to dig for it though. Channel 96 right next to the section of local Hispanic and public broadcast channels. Probably be one of them 2 camera angle broadcasts.

  11. getsome99 - Oct 25, 2013 at 10:12 PM

    BYU looking good tonight. We just need them to keep on winning at this point. Along with Mich State, Stanford, Michigan, Oklahoma and Arizona State. We’re obviously being penalized in the polls for a playing perceived “weak schedule” with our 2 losses against the only 2 “good teams” on our schedule.

    If we do run the table, I just hope we can make up enough ground in the polls to get that last BCS bid. A lot of football ahead I know and tough games still to win, so the last month is going to be very interesting.

    AND we’ll probably get to see some of our future stars in action over the next month.

  12. getsome99 - Oct 25, 2013 at 10:19 PM

    No need to dwell on Hendrix. We have 5 games left and then he’s done. Maybe he comes back next year, but why waste the scholarship when he’ll never see the field? Kelly will burn a redshirt on Dashone Kizer before wasting anymore reps on Hendrix.

    Not trying to be too hard on him, but that’s stating it kindly. I do expect him to play quite a bit the next two games handing the ball off and running some QB draws, but we should be safe to win both games as long as he doesn’t throw.

  13. irishdodger - Oct 26, 2013 at 12:06 AM

    Anyone watch the BYU/Boise St game? They are going to roll ND. That offense looks unstoppable vs. the ND defense & the BYU D isn’t too shabby either. I’d be more worried about the Cougars than the Stanford Cardinal at this point.

    • ndgoldandblue - Oct 26, 2013 at 12:42 AM

      Yeah…and ASU hung 60+ on USC. Look, I thought the Irish were going to get destroyed by Arizona State after the showing they had against the Trojans, and I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong. I’m incredibly glad that I overestimated ASU. Since that game, I’m not going to do it again. Just because one team looks good against another team, that doesn’t mean they’ll look good against the Irish. If it’s one thing BK knows how to do, it’s win. Most of the time it’s ugly, but they win nonetheless. Besides, this isn’t the same Boise St. team we used to know.

    • papadec - Oct 26, 2013 at 1:05 AM

      I watched the game – looked, to me, like Boise St gave the game away with turnovers.

    • richisirish - Oct 26, 2013 at 9:51 AM

      BYU looked like a solid team capable of beating most Mountain West teams. I like that they went independent, good for them! On the other side BSU looked pretty bad. I like the ND-BYU matchup, The BYU offense has a few skill players to make it interesting but their defense won’t hold up to ND. We’ll see how they do next week in Madison, WI. I won’t be watching the game today, but I’ll count on Keith and the “gang” to let me know what I missed!

  14. irishaggie - Oct 26, 2013 at 6:01 AM

    I was at the BYU-BSU game tonight. BYU looked good and Boise State played really bad. This a game BYU wanted badly. Regional rivalry against a team that was 20-0 all time in the state of Utah and 3-0 against BYU. They haven’t played much but being from Idaho and a Utah State alum i know these fan bases and the players don’t like each other. This game and the Utah game were THE games on the Cougars’ schedule. I don’t care if BK says it’s ND like he says about all other teams. With that said, I don’t think BYU will have the same level of intensity to go into South Bend and win.

  15. steincj36 - Oct 26, 2013 at 10:12 AM

    Thankfully, the one game this year that I probably wouldn’t have on TV is the one game in town. Upper deck in AF stadium is still not that bad of a seat.

  16. ndnphx - Oct 26, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    Safe to say that 9-2 is far from a lock at this point, although there’s enough talent around to get the job done. We need to show up and play the next four games. Winning ugly works just fine.

    BTW: about half of the pundits out west here are picking Oregon State over Stanford today. That would make Stanford a three loss team, for those of you keeping score at home…

  17. getsome99 - Oct 26, 2013 at 11:49 AM

    SEC non-conference opponents today:

    Furman (LSU)
    Florida Atlantic (Auburn)
    Idaho (Ole Miss)

    In case anyone feels the need to defend ND’s schedule, or quality of opponents.

    Or for any haters out there from the SEC who think we don’t know. We know.

    • ndgoldandblue - Oct 26, 2013 at 4:31 PM

      Thank you! My thoughts exactly. SEC fans boast constantly about their strength of schedule. That strength only seems to apply to conference foes, who they have to play anyway. Nearly all of their non-conference games are against Pop Warner teams.

  18. ajw21 - Oct 26, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    Stanford has 1 loss so they won’t be a 3 loss team and they are the best team we will play all year. BYU beat a weak Boise St team.
    I would like to see a 30+ pt win with Hendrix getting some exp. It might take a series or 2 but I think the D will play great again. I would like to see a 200 yard passing & running game by ND today.
    41-10 ND
    Go Irish!

    • ndnphx - Oct 26, 2013 at 2:18 PM

      Stanford plays Oregon in a couple of weeks, hence the three-loss potential if they don’t take care of business today. I don’t disagree they are the likely the best team we’ll face this year

  19. goirishgo - Oct 26, 2013 at 1:51 PM

    I saw Hendrix play several times in high school and he was very good. However, much of his success was due to outstanding strength and athleticism. There was not a lot of obvious QB ability….didn’t throw real well, no progressions to speak of, etc. He was a key part of a very good team but not a great football player. A head scratcher of a recruit from my POV.

    In short, it’s easy to fall in love with size, strength, speed, etc. but players need to be able to play football. We see it all the time….Riddick, McDaniel, Motta. Very good football players but none with truly great size, speed or athleticism.

    I’ve mentioned a couple of times here that I think the world of Shumate but he looks lost out there. Hopefully he’s not one of those great athletes that turns out to be a middling football player at this level.

    That said, I see today as a 35-10 Irish romp. Go Irish!

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