SAN DIEGO — The Navy Midshipmen are returning to one of the world’s great Navy towns, this time with the No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish in tow.
Being the “home” team will only go so far for the struggling Midshipmen (2-5) on Saturday night against the Fighting Irish (7-0), who, playing in San Diego for the first time, are looking to remain in the playoff picture.
“It’s great for us to be able to go somewhere where we have great support, where we have already a local fan base in that area, especially as we’re going cross-country,” said coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose Midshipmen are 24-point underdogs. “Also we’ll have a lot of former players that normally come to those games who are being stationed there. Just to be able to play in a Navy town with all the support of the naval and Marine Corps personnel in the area is obviously uplifting for us as a team. And also I think just for our players, from the standpoint of the realization that, hey, this is a place they could be stationed after they’re done playing is also beneficial for them.”
And then the caliber of the opponent sets in.
“We’ve enjoyed playing there. It’s been a great place for us. We’ll need all the support we can get,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy is the home team in even-numbered years in a series that has continued uninterrupted since 1927. Games have been played in Landover and Baltimore, Maryland; Dublin, Ireland; Orlando, Florida; East Rutherford, New Jersey; and Philadelphia.
Promoted by the San Diego Bowl Game Association, the matchup at SDCCU Stadium is expected to draw a sellout crowd of 66,000, one of the largest crowds ever for a college game here.
Navy is 3-4 in San Diego, including beating BYU in the first Holiday Bowl in 1978 and beating Colorado State in the first Poinsettia Bowl in 2005. It was 2-2 in the now-defunct Poinsettia Bowl, including 1-1 against San Diego State. It is 0-2 in the regular season here against San Diego State.
FACING THE TRIPLE-OPTION
Notre Dame saved its season with a comeback win against Pittsburgh, and then got a week off to prepare for Navy’s triple-option attack. “From a defensive standpoint, that attention to detail and everything that you do is at a premium,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We could use two more bye weeks to prepare for Navy in terms of what they present to you.” During practice, the Fighting Irish had three different players filling the role of Navy’s quarterback, Kelly said, because the Midshipmen are capable of giving that many looks at the position.
Navy’s triple-option, third in the nation with 309.4 yards rushing per game, is fueled by Malcolm Perry, who has a team-high 799 yards and seven touchdowns on 127 carries.
Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book, who’s from El Dorado Hills near Sacramento, looks to improve to 5-0 since replacing Brandon Wimbush. Book overcame two interceptions against Pitt and was 13 of 14 for 158 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, including the game-winning 35-yarder to Miles Boykin with 5:43 left.
The Notre Dame free safety transferred from Navy after the 2016 season. As a freshman, he had a team-high 12 tackles to help the Midshipmen beat the Fighting Irish 28-27. “It’s been tough to wrap my head around it,” he said about facing his former teammates. Gilman called that 2016 game “the Super Bowl of our season besides Army. It was a huge game, a big atmosphere. Our mindset as players going in there was that we didn’t have much to lose. We knew we had to play well in all phases. It was an exciting game.”
Notre Dame is 77-13-1 in the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in the country. Despite it being so lopsided, Notre Dame has been committed to playing the Midshipmen ever since the Naval Academy established a Navy College Training Program at Notre Dame in 1943, keeping the university afloat amid declining enrollment due to World War II.
During a decades-long Fighting Irish winning streak, the late Father Ted Hesburgh, the school’s long-time president, said: “We will play Navy as long as they want to play us.”
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