Standing on the home team's sideline at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium early Saturday night, Ricky Dobbs had a feeling that he was reliving his past.
"I was thinking, 'Yeah, this looks all so familiar,' " Dobbs recalled in a telephone interview Tuesday night.
Dobbs, Navy's record-setting former quarterback who is now coaching at the academy's prep school, was watching sophomore Trey Miller lead the Midshipmen on a wild fourth-quarter comeback against East Carolina. Miller had come in when senior Kriss Proctor suffered a dislocated elbow in the second quarter.
It reminded Dobbs of when he was a sophomore, coming in for an injured Jarod Bryant, leading Navy from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to a comeback victory over Temple. Though Miller's heroics fell short — the Midshipmen wound up losing 38-35 when an apparent third touchdown pass in the fourth quarter was ruled an incompletion and kicker Jon Teague's 42-yard field goal bounced off the right goalpost — the similarity in their performances was eerie.
Now comes another interesting twist: Navy's next opponent is Notre Dame, the same as it was back in 2008 following the win over Temple. But this time Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has no choice. Unlike three years ago, when Bryant recovered enough to start but was ineffective and was eventually replaced by Dobbs in the third quarter, Miller will start against the Fighting Irish Saturday in South Bend, Ind. It marks the first time a Navy quarterback will make his first start at Notre Dame Stadium since Brian Madden in 1999.
"I just have to be prepared to play and go out there and have fun," Miller said after practice Monday in Annapolis.
Asked how comfortable he is running Navy's triple option after playing in a spread offense in high school, Miller said that his year at the Navy prep school "helped me out a lot, that got me used to it, just have to get better at it."
Niumatalolo also liked the fact that Miller was a point guard on a state championship basketball team and "is used to having the ball in his hands."
After fumbling a snap on his first possession against the Pirates right before halftime, Miller seemed to get more comfortable as the game progressed.
By the fourth quarter, Miller looked like Ricky Dobbs reincarnate.
Miller threw two touchdowns, a 59-yarder to junior wide receiver Brandon Turner and a 37-yarder to sophomore wide receiver Matt Aiken, to help turn a 31-21 deficit into a 35-31 lead. The difference was that Dobbs also had help from his defense at the end. East Carolina had over 500 yards of offense, including 371 from quarterback Dominique Davis on 40-of-45 passing.
The situation brought back memories for Niumatalolo of the Temple game.
"Like Ricky, the environment he had to come in, the situation he had to come in, wasn't the most favorable," Niumatalolo said Tuesday. "After that center-quarterback exchange, I thought he played well. I was very impressed with his composure."
Niumatalolo was aware that Miller had a strong arm, but what has surprised the fourth-year coach has been Miller's speed. Unlike Dobbs, who tried to run over would-be tacklers, Miller's style is more similar to Proctor.
"I didn't realize how fast he was until we ran sprints," Niumatalolo said. "As a freshman, he was up there with Marcus Thomas [who ran a kickoff back 90 yards against ECU] and it was like, 'Whoa, I didn't know Trey was that fast. He's such a smooth runner, it doesn't look like he's moving. He's got all the tools."
As Navy had to do when Dobbs came in for an injured Bryant and wound up rushing for 224 yards against Southern Methodist, offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said that he "expected to keep the game plan simple" for Miller against Notre Dame.
Jasper was happy with Miller's performance against the Pirates, but still not satisfied. Though he delivered the pass that Aiken appeared to catch and was later ruled an incompletion, Miller also overthrew a streaking and wide open Turner a couple of plays earlier.
"You've got to finish," Jasper said. "Because of how he played, the one play that still sticks out was overthrowing the route on third-and-1 that was there for us. We had a chance to win the game. But he played well, I'm happy for him. The kid works hard and I was happy to see him shine in that situation."
Miller credited Proctor, who returned with his arm in a sling, for helping him focus.
"He helped me figure out the defenses and make the right reads, [told him] just go out there and have fun," Miller said.
Miller said he also spoke with Dobbs right after the game.
"He told me I played pretty good, but I've got a long way to go and keep pushing," said Miller.
Dobbs, who, like Miller is from the Atlanta area, first met Miller when Dobbs ran a camp for disadvantaged youth the summer after Miller graduated from high school. Dobbs encouraged Miller when the younger player was struggling academically at prep school. Dobbs also gave Miller a constant message during the first six games this season, when he played sparingly behind Proctor.
"Make sure you're always prepared," Dobbs said. "In the kind of offense that we play, you might have an opportunity and pop on the scene like I did. Whoever the backup is, you're always one play away."
That play happened when Proctor came down awkwardly on an elbow he had dislocated three times before. Suddenly it was Miller's time. And very soon after that, Miller started doing some things that drew comparisons to Dobbs.
Miller is aware that he reminds many of Dobbs, who in 2008 nearly led the Midshipmen from behind to beat Notre Dame at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Some people say that, [I've] got huge footsteps to follow in," Miller said.
Those footsteps could get a significantly smaller if Navy wins Saturday in South Bend.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun