DUBLIN — Navy’s trans-Atlantic trip started with a hiccup, the first of many distractions the Midshipmen will have to fend off this weekend as they prepare to open their season against Notre Dame on Saturday.
The team spent an extra 2½ hours in Washington Dulles International Airport waiting for its flight to leave Wednesday night. The delay, and a five-hour time difference, left room for only a pit stop at the hotel between the airport and practice field for Navy on Thursday afternoon. It was the first dose of Ken Niumatalolo’s reality this week. The head coach said he was willing to cede a little control for what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to play abroad.
“Coaches are kind of control freaks. You want to be able to control things: the environment, what time we eat, what time we stretch, what color your milk is,” he said. “Sometimes those things are out of your hands when you travel this far.”
Dairy products aside, Niumatalolo said the toughest hurdle the next few days is getting his team adjusted to the local time. He toyed with the idea of changing his practice schedule in fall camp and did his best to get the team to sleep on the flight. Eventually, he said, you just have to deal with the changes and get ready to play football.
The trip is as much a first step toward redemption as it is a cultural experience for Navy’s players. The Midshipmen are trying to bounce back from a 5-7 season a year ago, their first losing record since 2002. They start with a big challenge against a Notre Dame team that won last year’s annual meeting 56-14 in South Bend, Ind.
“This is a business trip, so we’re here to play a football game,” junior quarterback Trey Miller said. “We just have to come out and know it’s just football. We can’t make it bigger than it is.”
The game will be big enough for Miller. He is replacing the Mids’ leading rusher from last season, Kriss Proctor, in his second career start. His only other full game under center came in the blowout loss to the Fighting Irish last season.
Thursday’s workout on a windy practice field adjacent to Aviva Stadium gave the players a chance to shake off some of their jet lag and keep their minds on the task at hand. Senior slot back Bo Snelson said putting on his pads was his own shove back toward reality after gawking at Ireland’s countryside and people on their trip to the field.
“I kind of feel a little strange, like celebrities, you know everybody is kind of hanging out of their windows and their doorsteps watching us drive by. It’s a really great feeling. We’re really excited to be here,” he said to the two dozen reporters sticking multicolored microphones in his face.
Most of the local reporters were more interested in Snelson’s postgame plans Saturday night than his plans to get past All-America linebacker Manti Te’o. He said he was blown away by the beauty and hospitality of Ireland, but he wouldn’t consider his first trip to this side of the Atlantic a success without a victory.
“We want to be able to tell people that we played at Aviva Stadium and we won, not that we came and played in Ireland and then we had to get back on the plane and go back downtrodden,” he said.
• Dan Murphy covers Notre Dame for Blue & Gold Illustrated magazine. Follow him at @BGI_DanMurphy.