Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has been on a roll of late.
For the past three weeks, Niumatalolo has been able to tell his players that Navy was facing a team that was better than the one to which it had just lost.
Navy lost to SMU in overtime then had to face red-hot Temple, which has now won five of its last six contests. After falling to the Owls by a touchdown, the Midshipmen had to turn around and take on a Houston club that ranks second nationally in scoring offense with 48.7 points per game.
Sure enough, Navy could not stop quarterback D’Eriq King and the high-powered Houston attack and was routed, 49-36, in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score would indicate.
Now Navy (2-5) must travel 2,600 miles to face third-ranked Notre Dame (7-0), which is very much in the hunt for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Quarterback Ian Book leads a potent offense while linebacker Te’von Coney anchors a stingy defense for the Fighting Irish, one of five remaining unbeaten teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“We have another great challenge in playing the No. 3 team in the country,” Niumatalolo said. “We just played the best team on our schedule to this date. Now we’re going to play a team that is even better. We have our work cut out for us.”
Notre Dame’s biggest win so far this season came over Michigan (24-17), which is ranked fifth in the latest Associated Press poll. The Irish have also beaten No. 24 Stanford (38-17).
The Fighting Irish have not been selected for the College Football Playoff under the current format. Notre Dame was routed by Alabama, 42-14, in the 2012 Bowl Championship Series national championship.
This is the longest, continuous intersectional rivalry in college football and Notre Dame leads the series 77-1-3-1. The Fighting Irish had a historic 43-game winning streak against the Midshipmen snapped in 2007.
Navy has beaten Notre Dame three times since then while four of the last five meetings have been decided by 10 points or less. The Fighting Irish narrowly avoided another upset last season, hanging on for a 24-17 victory over the Mids.
Navy has either beaten Notre Dame or lost by one possession in six of the 10 games played during Niumatalolo’s tenure. None of those factoids make the 11th-year head coach feel any better about going against the perennial powerhouse.
“We recognize who we are and that we have to play perfect against a team like this. We have to minimize our mistakes as much as possible and hope they’re off a little bit,” Niumatalolo said. “We know exactly who they are. They are going to be the best team we play every year and it’s going to be a tall order to beat them. We have to play really, really well to even have a chance.”
Whenever Navy is the “home” team in this series the game is played at a neutral site, usually at an NFL stadium. This year’s contest is being held at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium, which actually is no longer an NFL venue since the Chargers moved to Los Angeles.
This year’s Navy-Notre Dame game is being hosted by the same organization that runs the Holiday Bowl with Navy Federal and Navy Mutual serving as presenting sponsors. A sellout crowd of 66,000 is expected with advance sales proving extremely brisk.
“The demand for that game has been pretty remarkable. There is an urgency because tickets are going fast,” said Mark Neville, executive director of the San Diego Bowl Game Association.
“The fact that Notre Dame has never played here before, the fact that this is a Navy town and this rivalry has been going on for more than 80 years is the reason. It’s a big-time event and San Diego is, obviously, taking notice of it.”
Eight of Navy’s 13 wins over Notre Dame have come at a neutral site when the former was considered the home team. The Midshipmen have beaten the Fighting Irish four times in Baltimore and once each in Cleveland, Philadelphia, East Rutherford, New Jersey and Jacksonville.
Navy will certainly have its fair share of fans at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium on Saturday night. San Diego hosts the largest naval fleet in the world and is home to over 120 tenant commands and more than 35,000 sailors, soldiers, Department of Defense civilian employees and contractors.
Military bases in San Diego include U.S. Navy facilities, Marine Corps bases, and Coast Guard stations. Among the more notable are Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Naval Base Point Loma, Naval Base San Diego, Naval Medical Center San Diego and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.
“It’s great for us to go somewhere where we have great support. We have a great fan base in that part of the country,” Niumatalolo said. “I just think being able to play in a Navy town with the support of all the Navy and Marine Corps personnel in that area is uplifting for us as a team.”
Navy has played at this stadium four times since 2005 with all the appearances coming in the now-defunct Poinsettia Bowl that was also run by the San Diego Bowl Game Association. Navy went 2-2 in the Poinsettia Bowl, beating Colorado State (2005) and San Diego State while losing to Utah and San Diego State.
“We’ve enjoyed playing there. It’s been a great place for our program and we’ll need all the support we can get,” Niumatalolo said.
Speaking during the American Athletic Conference weekly teleconference, Niumatalolo acknowledged that many football players come to Navy just for the chance to play against Notre Dame.
“We knew every year we’re going to play one of the storied football programs in our country.
It’s something we talk about a lot. Not too many players get an opportunity to play in South Bend twice,” Niumatalolo said. “It is definitely something we spotlight when we recruit. It’s helped us with recruiting so we do try to use that to our advantage.”
Alohi Gilman is an example of a player who came to Navy to play against Notre Dame and made the most of the opportunity as a freshman in 2016. The 6-foot, 195-pound safety was all over the field while recording 12 tackles to help the Mids upset the Irish, 28-27, at Everbank Field in Jacksonville.
Gilman announced in June, 2017 that he was transferring to Notre Dame. Head coach Brian Kelly admitted the Hawaii native made quite an impression on the Notre Dame coaching staff during that 2016 meeting with Navy.
“In terms of his football fit, we got a good look at Alohi against us last season. He plays the style of safety we want in this program,” Kelly said at the time. “Alohi’s a run-and-hit safety that fits perfectly in the Mike Elko defense.”
After sitting out the 2017 season per NCAA transfer rules, Gilman has moved into the starting lineup and made quite an impact. The Kahuku High product ranks third on the team with 38 tackles and also has two pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Navy is mired in a four-game losing streak for the first time since 2011. The Midshipmen lost six straight that year en route to finishing with a 5-7 record, their only losing season between 2003 and 2017.
Navy faces a daunting schedule over the next three weeks as Notre Dame, Cincinnati (Nov. 3) and Central Florida (Nov. 10) have a combined record of 20-1. If the Midshipmen are unable to upset any of those three opponents they will be saddled with a seven-game skid for the first time since 2002.
CINCY GAME TIME: The American Athletic Conference announced on Monday that Navy’s road game against Cincinnati on Nov. 3 at Nippert Stadium will kick off at 3:30 p.m. Eastern and will be televised by ESPNU.