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Navy aims to avoid stage fright on this trip to Notre Dame

Notre Dame Fighting IrishFootballPittsburgh PanthersBrian KellyKen Niumatalolo

Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds has played in large stadiums and in big games in his two years at Navy, so he knows he can't get caught up in the hoopla he will witness Saturday at Notre Dame or the recent history of the series.

Yet Reynolds is fully aware of what has transpired the past two years — 56-14 and 50-10 blowout wins for the Fighting Irish — and what could happen again if he goes into South Bend, Ind., even a little wide-eyed.

"Everywhere I go, I step in the same way. You can't let outside factors influence you between the white lines," Reynolds said. "I have some experience. I played at Penn State with 100,000 fans, and that's an historic, traditional program. It's going to be quite an experience to be able play in South Bend — a surreal experience — but I've got to focus on what I need to do."

Yet as Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo acknowledged on Tuesday, "That's easier said than done."

Niumatalolo said after the 2011 game in South Bend that he was disappointed about the way the Midshipmen seemed as overwhelmed by the atmosphere as by Notre Dame's team, but he recalled feeling the same way as an assistant coach on Charlie Weatherbie's staff in 1995.

"I told my guys, 'Hey, it's just a normal stadium, don't get caught up in all those things,'" Niumatalolo said. "We went out on Friday [that year] and walked around when nobody's there, but when I came, it was like, 'Whoa.' It's a pretty special place to play.

"You've just got to recognize it for what it is, and when the game starts, the game starts between the white lines. [But] If you're a human, it's hard not to be in awe of that place. Somehow you've got to move on."

Junior Parrish Gaines, who made his first career start for the Midshipmen in the game at Notre Dame two years ago, said that "it's definitely a different atmosphere" than most games Navy plays in on the road.

"It can give you butterflies," said Gaines, who will make his second start at safety after moving over from cornerback for last week's 24-21 home win over Pittburgh.

Niumatalolo helped prepare Navy (4-3) at practice this week by having the Notre Dame fight song blaring repeatedly through the loudspeakers to simulate the peripheral noise inside the venerable stadium.

Considering the Fighting Irish typically play that song after scoring touchdowns, Niumatalolo is hoping that he and his players don't hear the familiar tune too often after the game starts. He and his players also know that the Midshipmen will have to play better to beat Notre Dame (6-2) than they did to beat Pitt.

Last week Navy came from a touchdown behind and won on a 30-yard field goal by sophomore Nick Sloan with no time remaining. Reynolds, who played well in the fourth quarter after struggling much of the game, has typically been at his best when the stage gets bigger.

"We have a saying in the quarterback room: 'We've got to play perfect every week,'" Reynolds said. "So we definitely have to come and play perfect. We have to have some things go our way as well. College football is week to week. Anybody can beat anybody."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Navy (4-3) @ Notre Dame (6-2)

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Site: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

TV: NBC

Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Series: Notre Dame leads, 73-12-1

Last meeting: Notre Dame won, 50-10, on Sept. 1, 2012 in Dublin, Ireland

Navy offense vs. Notre Dame defense: When the Midshipmen beat the Fighting Irish, 35-17, in Brian Kelly's first season in 2010, Navy rushed for 367 yards in winning for the third time in four years. The Midshipmen, who are averaging a little more than 292 yards per game on the ground this year, will have to keep their offense on the field and moving to have any chance to break their two-game losing streak against the Fighting Irish. Whether 349-pound Notre Dame tackle Louis Nix III plays after sitting out last week's 45-10 win over Air Force because of recurring knee issues could ultimately help determine the outcome. Navy should be close to full strength at both slotback and fullback. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds will also have to be given more time if Navy decides to throw.

Navy defense vs. Notre Dame offense: The Midshipmen came up big late in the fourth quarter last week against Pittsburgh after being knocked backwards for much of the game by the Panthers. It seems likely that Navy again will use its two biggest down linemen, Bernie Sarra and Travis Bridges, in tandem to counter the bulk and strength of Notre Dame's offensive line. The Fighting Irish had seven rushing touchdowns two years ago against Navy and five in last year's meeting. But this year's Irish team has struggled to amount much of a ground game (95th in the country at 136.4 yards per game). The biggest obstacle will be getting to Notre Dame senior quarterback Tommy Rees, who has thrown for 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The secondary will likely be kept busy by receivers T.J. Jones (44 catches, 631 yards, six TDs) and DaVaris Daniels (30 catches, 463 yards, four TDs) as well as tight end Troy Niklas (20 catches, 328 yards, five TDs).

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Notre Dame Fighting IrishFootballPittsburgh PanthersBrian KellyKen Niumatalolo
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