Music blared at Navy football practice throughout the week in Annapolis, giving the Midshipmen a feel of what they will experience tonight in Columbia, S.C., inside Williams-Brice Stadium. Coaches stopped drills to remind the players about the size, speed and accomplishments of some of their South Carolina counterparts.
The Midshipmen didn't blink.
"Our approach is that we're just going to put our heads down and go to work," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said Wednesday after practice. "We're like mules, we're going to go down in the mine and be there all day and see what we have. We might have dirt or gold or whatever. We're going to stay in the mine until it's time to play."
Niumatalolo joked Monday that Navy might look like "Boy Scout Troop 577" compared with some of South Carolina's Southeastern Conference opponents, but he knows that his team has faced other highly ranked, highly favored teams in the recent past and fared well.
Though Navy (2-0) understands that it will be overmatched physically and athletically by the mostly bigger, stronger and faster Gamecocks, the thought of facing No. 10 South Carolina (2-0) on the road is not any more daunting than playing Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., or Ohio State in Columbus.
That the Midshipmen beat the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in 2007 — breaking a 44-year losing streak, the longest in Division I-A football at the time — and nearly upset the then-No. 6 Buckeyes at The Horseshoe in the 2009 season opener, gives Navy a quiet confidence that 18-point underdogs shouldn't rightfully possess.
Then again, not many college football players go through the rigors the Midshipmen experience in their daily lives.
It is just another challenge, except one that will be played out before 85,000 screaming fans and a national television audience.
"I do look at it as being a challenge, same as the academy is a challenge," said senior defensive end and co-captain Jabaree Tuani. "It is different because it is a competition and the better man will win that day."
Said senior fullback and co-captain Alexander Teich: "Getting to play in front of 80,000-something fans, it's really easy for us to get up for. It's something you come here for, to play the Notre Dames, the South Carolinas. You're very excited about, just to be in a stadium like that, an atmosphere like that, it's not something you see every day."
Tuani and Teich have twice been on the winning side against Notre Dame and were sophomores when Navy came within an intercepted two-point conversion pass of taking the lead on Ohio State late in the 2009 opener. But many of the Midshipmen have not been in that kind of setting.
"You feel good from one standpoint that we've been in some tough situations, some tough environments and our guys have played well, but it's a totally different team," said Niumatalolo, who has his team off to the school's first 2-0 start in five years. "This is a new year, a new team, anything that happened in the past doesn't guarantee anything for the future. We're excited about it, we're excited to go. We might get pummeled 70-0, but we're excited for this opportunity."
The teams played regularly between 1982 and 1988 and while the Midshipmen won only once, it was memorable — a 38-21 upset of the then-unbeaten, No. 2 Gamecocks going into their final regular-season game in 1984.
Niumatalolo also knows that this South Carolina team could be different from other ranked opponents Navy has played in the recent past.
"This is the most athletic team that we've ever seen," Niumatalolo said. "It's the most athletic team that I've ever seen in my 14 years here" as a head coach and assistant.
Just as the Gamecocks have to try to figure out who to stop first in Navy's triple option — Teich, senior quarterback Kriss Proctor or a stable of slotbacks that will be missing injured senior Aaron Santiago — the Midshipmen have a similar dilemma in trying to contain sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore, junior receiver Alshon Jeffery or quarterback Stephen Garcia.
"You want to make a team more one-dimensional," Tuani said. "If they can run and pass, you really don't know what they're going to do the next play."
Just as Navy's coaches have told the players about Lattimore and Jeffery, as well as defensive stars Melvin Ingram (two touchdowns in last week's 45-42 win at Georgia) and Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has reminded the Gamecocks that the Midshipmen lead the country in rushing, have beaten Notre Dame three of the past four years and have a 9-9-2 record against SEC teams. (He probably didn't mention that a 63-0 win over South Carolina came in 1920, long before the Gamecocks joined the SEC.)
"Navy might be as good an independent school as there is in the country," Spurrier said during his weekly news conference. "Navy takes care of the ball. They get the most out of their players. They're very well-coached. They do an excellent job with the players they have there. We have a lot to work on."
Navy has more, given the matchup.
Said Teich, "To beat this team, we have to play a perfect game."
Tonight's game NAVY (2-0) @ No. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA (2-0)
NAVY (2-0) @ No. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA (2-0)
Time: 6 p.m.
Site: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, S.C.
Radio: 1430 AM
Series: South Carolina leads 4-3
Last meeting: South Carolina, 19-8, on Nov. 12, 1988, in Columbia, S.C.
Line: South Carolina by 17
Navy offense vs. South Carolina defense: After rushing for 176 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against Delaware, senior quarterback Kriss Proctor was held to 23 yards on 16 carries in last week's 40-14 win at Western Kentucky. But Proctor threw two long touchdown passes on play-action, including a 44-yarder to Matt Aiken. The Midshipmen, who lead the nation in rushing at a shade over 400 yards a game, had fullback Alexander Teich and slotback John Howell go over 100 yards each. Howell will start in place of injured senior Aaron Santiago. The Gamecocks have given up 79 points in their two games, but the defense scored one touchdown and set up another in last week's 45-42 win at Georgia. Antonio Allen returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown, and Stephon Gilmore's 56-yard return with a fumble set up another score for South Carolina. Defensive end Melvin Ingram returned a fake punt 68 yards for a touchdown.
Navy defense vs. South Carolina offense: Despite nine new starters, the Midshipmen have played well in a bend-don't-break mold and are 23rd against the pass, 31st in scoring defense and 39th in overall defense. But the Gamecocks present some of the biggest challenges Navy will face all season in 230-pound sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore and 6-foot-4 junior wide-out Alshon Jeffery. If South Carolina has a weak spot while averaging a little over 50 points a game, it is the erratic play of quarterbacks Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw. After benching Garcia, a senior, in favor of Shaw, a sophomore, to start the opener against East Carolina, Steve Spurrier reversed himself and started Garcia against the Bulldogs. Navy defensive ends Jabaree Tuani and Jamel Dobbs will have to put pressure on whoever is at quarterback because the Midshipmen are banged up and starting relatively inexperienced outside linebackers Keegan Wetzel and Brye French. Inside linebacker Matt Warrick has 17 tackles, one more than fellow inside linebacker Matt Brewer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun