- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Navy’s series with Notre Dame and semiregular meetings with teams from the ACC and Big East typically take the Midshipmen into notable major-college environments. Rarely, though, does Navy receive the opportunity to venture into college football’s epicenter.

That changes with Saturday’s visit to No. 10 South Carolina (2-0).

The Mids (2-0) will play their first road game against a Southeastern Conference opponent since a 2003 trip to Vanderbilt, facing a foe they’ve been more likely to see in a video game than across the line of scrimmage.

“It’s crazy — I play Xbox and I’m playing with these guys,” slotback John Howell said. “I just love the fact we’re going up against them now. You ask anybody here, not a single person is scared or has any doubt in their mind. We embrace the challenge and we’re looking forward to it. I’m speechless for it.”

Navy, of course, plays in packed stadiums and before raucous crowds on a regular basis. It visits Notre Dame every other year, opened the 2009 season with a near-upset at Ohio State and annually plays Army before a sellout crowd in a pro stadium.

The Gamecocks happen to have a marquee coach — Steve Spurrier — and oodles of talent spread throughout their depth chart. During practice Monday, a Navy assistant rattled off all-conference honors for several South Carolina players to help familiarize the Mids with their upcoming opponent.

It took a while for the coach to complete his chore. It was that sort of week during Navy’s practice sessions, which included piped-in music in an attempts to simulate the noise the Mids will encounter at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Still, it’s a particularly exciting opportunity for players raised in SEC country. Defensive end Jabaree Tuani, a Nashville, Tenn.-area product, grew up as a Tennessee fan and appreciates the chance to play a team from the Volunteers’ conference.

“They definitely have the equipment to do whatever they need to do,” Tuani said. “But you definitely want to take it stride by stride, a day at a time, and work on everything you need to work on. They’re going to come out doing whatever they have to do, and you just have to find a way to stop them.”

Doing so against an opponent without a shortage of size and speed won’t come easy. Navy’s precision — it rolled up more than 400 yards in consecutive games to start the season — could be a valuable asset against a South Carolina defense that yielded 79 points in the past two weeks.

But with the Gamecocks boasting elite players at tailback (6-foot, 232-pounder Marcus Lattimore) and wideout (6-foot-4, 229-pounder Alshon Jeffery), Navy’s defense will face one of its most severe tests in coach Ken Niumatalolo’s four-year tenure.

“If coach Spurrier might have thought Boise State looked like Furman or Wofford, I hate to think what he thinks we look like,” Niumatalolo said. “Probably Boy Scout Troop 577.”

Navy has beaten three ranked teams since it began its eight-year streak of reaching a bowl game. But the Mids’ last defeat of a top-10 opponent came almost three decades ago. The opponent? Then-No. 2 South Carolina in 1984.

History aside, a memorable adventure awaits Navy this weekend. Leaving with a win, though, would make it even better.

“I know our guys are excited about it,” Niumatalolo said. “To be able to go to an SEC school, one of the teams that’s contending for a national championship — if you can’t get up for this one, I don’t have any motivational speeches for you.”

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