Special To Blue & Gold Illustrated
By Staci Gasser
Chris Watt, left, and Zack Martin, right, are cornerstones on the left side of the offensive line for Notre Dame this season.
Led by 300-pounders and fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt, Notre Dame's offensive line will have the luxury of a significant size advantage Saturday against Air Force.
The Irish starting five outweigh the Falcons defensive front by an average of 54 pounds — 311 pounds to 257 pounds. Instead of bulk, this week the offensive line will be battling speed and the elements.
“Going up against Air Force, they’re going to be a tough opponent,” Watt said. “Obviously being a military academy, they are going to be very scrappy and going after us every play. So we will have to give our best efforts out there.”
The Falcons try to make up for their lack of size by moving a lot and finding ways to make plays in the backfield.
“Big thing is movement, they like to move a lot, “ Martin said. “So we need to keep our heads up and stand our blocks.”
Air Force's 12th man, which is also serves to slow down opponents, is the thin air in the middle of the Rocky Mountains . Sitting more than 7,000 feet above sea level, the air is rare at Falcon Stadium, and the altitude tends to affect players who aren’t acclimated to it.
At higher elevations, the body takes in less oxygen, and it must produce more red blood cells to compensate. And that adjustment takes up to two weeks. So when visiting athletes play in the thin Rocky Mountain air, they often experience quickened heart rates, shortness of breath, muscle cramping and fatigue because of low oxygen saturation in the blood and dehydration because of the dry air.
None of the current Notre Dame players have played in Colorado Springs, but offensive graduate assistant Tyler McDermott has. McDermott, a Florida native, was a center for Colorado State University from 2007-2011 and not only had to adjust to the Colorado altitude first-hand, but faced Air Force at Falcon Stadium a few times.
“It’s different. It’s harder to breathe and harder to recover because the oxygen isn’t getting to the cells that it needs to,” McDermott said. “It takes a couple of weeks to get used to but there are a couple of things you can do to minimize your accumulation time.”
McDermott has been telling his players that before and during the competition, they need to be pushing fluids so they don’t risk injury and can play through it at their optimal level.
“And you need to know when your fatigue level has been hit and when to back off because if you push yourself too hard [in that altitude], you can suffer acute mountain sickness, pulmonary edema and cerebral edema,” he said. “But our trainer Rob Hunt is really on top of that kind of stuff.”
And while some people say it's psychosomatic, the linemen won’t be taking any chances.
“Tyler has been telling us to be hydrated out there,” Watt said. “It’s definitely going to affect us but we will try to not let us affect us too much.”
Another thing that the linemen will be bringing with them to Air Force is their upmost respect for the future Air Force officers.
“That’s the great thing about it. I’ve been able to play against all three military academies and it’s always a pretty humbling experience because you are competing with guys that are protecting this country and its future,” Watt said. “It’s humbling.”
“It’s a great experience playing future soldiers and leaders of our country,” Martin added. “We know they sacrifice a lot so it’s great opportunity for us to go out there and play them.”
Besides focusing on how to hold the Air Force line and altitude effects, the Fighting Irish O-Line has been concentrating hard better communication, the ability of seeing the defense on every play and being together as a line as they have struggled in the past games with line infractions and run blocking.
“We’re continuing to improve that communication throughout the week in our preparation and showing it on the field is the biggest thing we’ve improved on,” Watt said. “It’s not always about our opponent. It’s about us and how we are getting better and preparing for our opponent.”