Notre Dame and Air Force are set to meet for the 30th time when Notre Dame travels to Colorado Springs this weekend. The series with the Falcons is one the Fighting Irish have dominated over the years with a record of 23 wins and just six losses.
The Irish did fall to Air Force 41-24 in 2007. They also narrowly escaped the Falcons 34-31 in overtime in 2002, but Notre Dame dominated 59-33 two years ago in Brian Kelly's only previous meeting.
Andrew Hendrix made his career debut in that game for the Irish. He rushed for 111 yards on six carries, with the highlight being a 78-yard burst. Hendrix was also 4-for-4 passing for 33 yards in relief of Tommy Rees in that game.
Those numbers are a far cry from Hendrix's 0-for-4 passing and general lack of production he had when he was thrust into action last week against USC when Rees went down with a neck injury. Hendrix has not been able to speak to the media since last Saturday, but Rees did this week.
Rees became used to playing in a reserve role behind Everett Golson last year and he shined when he was called upon. The senior says the key for Hendrix is preparation.
"You've just got to stay prepared," said Rees. "The biggest thing is just stay calm and lead confidently and believe in your ability. This whole team believes that Andrew can go in there and get the job done if he's called upon."
"I think (last) Saturday will motivate him to make sure the next time he'll perform a little better. I think that he'll be the first guy to tell you that. He wants to go out and play better and we all know he can."
Rees has been able to practice with the Irish all week. He did not want to be specific about his neck injury, but he says he has made steady progress.
"The training staff's been good," said Rees. "We've worked through it the past couple days and I feel I'm at a spot where I'm good enough to go back out and play."
Rees took light reps with the first-team offense on Tuesday, while Hendrix and freshman Malik Zaire each took more first-team reps than usual. By Thursday Rees took all the first-team reps, while Hendrix got all the second-team repetitions and Zaire got no reps.
The only player on the Notre Dame roster who hails from the state of Colorado is Danny Spond. The senior outside linebacker's career ended prematurely when he announced his "retirement" during training camp in August due to a migraine headache condition that has caused other physical side effects.
Spond has remained with the team though and he has been working as a "coach" to fellow drop linebackers Jaylon Smith and Ben Councell. The Littleton, CO native still travels with the team and he has had this trip circled for a long time.
"This has definitely been a hallmark game in my mind since even when I was a freshman and schedules projected us to play in Colorado," Spond said this week. "It's definitely something I've been looking forward to. (Whether I am) playing or coaching it's just going to be fun to go back to Colorado with Notre Dame."
"I'm excited to get back there and show my teammates what elevation is like," he continued. "I'm looking forward to it. It'll be fun."
Ah yes, elevation - it's a natural subject that came up this week. Colorado Springs sits at an elevation of 6,010 feet, which is roughly 5,200 feet higher above sea level than South Bend. The natural question is how will the Irish deal with the increased altitude on Saturday?
"There's nothing physiologically wrong with you or anybody," said Spond. "But it's definitely something that you notice when you're there. You just have a little bit harder time catching your breath, but you get it. You come off the sideline and get some water and you'll be fine."
Notre Dame is 12-2 all-time in games played at Air Force. The Falcons' last home win over the Irish was in 1985.
Irish running back Cam McDaniel became a bit of a pop culture phenomenon this week for his photogenic looks. McDaniel had an almost too good to be true look on his face when cameras caught a shot of him last Saturday night when his helmet popped off in the USC game.
The junior even made a Friday appearance (via satellite) on NBC's "Today Show" to discuss his newfound fame. Last Saturday was not the first time his helmet has come off during a game though.
"I don't know why that keeps happening," said McDaniel. "That last one was just ridiculous. It just popped off. Nobody ripped it off or anything. I don't know - the equipment staff's taking care of that."
Almost more costly than losing his helmet was when McDaniel lost the ball late in the fourth quarter of the USC game. His fumble was the first of his career and just the second for any Notre Dame player this season.
McDaniel was back on the field for Notre Dame's next drive though and he even carried the ball one more time. Head coach Brian Kelly said this week that "trust" was the major factor for giving McDaniel the ball after the fumble.
"If he carried the ball sloppily in practice and he was known as a guy that put the ball on the ground we probably wouldn't have gone back to him," Kelly said. "But he doesn't have a history of it. He doesn't carry himself that way as a guy that doesn't pay attention to detail and we trust him."
McDaniel is Notre Dame's second-leading rusher with 351 yards this season. He leads the Fighting Irish with 81 carries. He and George Atkinson (team-high 363 yards) share the team lead with two rushing touchdowns each.
Next Man In
Kelly announced after Thursday's practice that Christian Lombard, Notre Dame's starting right guard all season, will miss the rest of the season. Lombard had surgery this week to repair a severely herniated disc in his back.
Kelly actually dropped the announcement in while answering a question about freshman offensive lineman Steve Elmer.
"Now we're counting on him, because Christian's out for the year," Kelly said in mid-sentence. "Lombard had back surgery the other day, so (Elmer has to) be in there full-time."
Elmer, a 6-foot-6, 317-pound true freshman from Midland, Mich, has played in five of Notre Dame's seven games already this season. Temple and Oklahoma are the only two games in which he has failed to see the field, but he is likely to play the rest of the year now.
"He's a better game player than he is a practice player," Kelly said of Elmer. "He has a unique sense of the game for a young kid. Things occur in a game that you just react to (and) he has a knack of sensing and feeling things in the game that you really can't teach."
Old Friends Teammates Again
Current Notre Dame teammates Troy Niklas and Joe Schmidt are practically lifelong friends. The two Southern California natives were once eighth grade football teammates before going their separate ways in high school. Their dads, Joe Schmidt and Don Niklas, even played college football together at the University of San Diego (also a Catholic school).
Schmidt and Niklas crossed paths on the high school gridiron as well when Schmidt's Mater Dei High School played Niklas's Servite High team. Niklas was on the offensive line while Schmidt was at linebacker.
"Our senior year he blocked me almost every play," Schmidt recalled this week of that 2010 game. "I basically followed Troy wherever he went. It was funny, because we were friends and he's an incredible football player. That was an incredibly challenging game and, unfortunately, he won that year."
They butted heads three years ago, but they have continued to be close in their time together at Notre Dame. Schmidt came to college as a walk-on linebacker and after playing mostly on special teams early this season, he has been thrust into action at linebacker since Jarrett Grace's season-ending injury three weeks ago.
Schmidt got his first career pass breakup last week against, fittingly, USC and Niklas was one of the first Irish players on the field to congratulate him.
"He was pretty jacked-up," Schmidt said with a smile.
Niklas came to Notre Dame with a full scholarship, but Schmidt turned down scholarship offers from smaller schools for the chance to walk-on for the Irish.
"You only have so many opportunities to go after a dream," said Schmidt of his decision to play at Notre Dame. "This was my opportunity and I wasn't going to let it pass."
Schmidt did not play as a freshman in 2011. He saw special teams action in 10 games last season and was rewarded by Kelly this past summer with a full scholarship.