2011: A Football Odyssey
Ken Niumatalolo has guided Navy to two wins over nationally-ranked opponents since 2008.
Sept. 15, 2011
By Bob Socci
Soon after the Navy Midshipmen celebrated their third touchdown of the night, in the minutes between Brandon Turner's 27-yard catch and the ensuing kickoff last Saturday, Western Kentucky's band struck up the fanfare from Richard Strauss's sprach Zarathustra.
Most Americans would recognize the 1896 composition from the score to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which hit theaters 43 years ago. But to South Carolinians, except for those swearing allegiance to Clemson, it's an unofficial state anthem.
What the Mids were treated to in Bowling Green, Ky. was barely a prelude, a small -- repeat, a small -- sampling of the earful they're about to get in Columbia, S.C., home of the Gamecocks and one of college football's most deafening environments.
Saturday marks Carolina's first game at Williams-Brice Stadium since last November. The Gamecocks are returning home after a 45-42 win at Georgia and ranked 10th in the nation as a favorite to reach the SEC Championship game.
You do know the SEC, the league that's produced the last five BCS champs?
Just as they've done for years, the chants of nearly 80,000 fans will grow increasingly louder, reaching a pre-game crescendo exactly when their Gamecocks charge out of their locker room to the sound of Strauss's handiwork.
For Navy, it's 2011: A Football Odyssey. The Mids are venturing into a stadium also known as "The Cockpit" and, since a 1983 win over Southern Cal, reputed to literally tremble under the feet of Carolina fanatics. As the late head coach Joe Morrison said: If they ain't swayin', we ain't playin'.
As if it weren't enough to overcome, preparing for an opponent loaded with NFL prospects -- including arguably the best running-and-receiving tandem in America -- and coached by a wily ole vet with a .719 career winning percentage, Navy is bracing itself for the din of Williams-Brice.
And lest one forget, two games into the season the Midshipmen are already feeling the impact of injuries; while more than two decades later, older Carolinians are still bruised by Navy's 1984 upset of Morrison's then second-ranked Gamecocks.
"We're banged up all over," says head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "We've played two physical games, and now we're getting ready for the most physically-gifted team we'll play. By far, this is the best collection of (opposing) athletes since I've been here at the Naval Academy. They just beat a good Georgia team on the road, and they're not happy with the way they're playing."
Specifically, his counterpart Steve Spurrier isn't entirely pleased.
USC overcame a turnover-marred start and 17-0 deficit to rout of East Carolina, 56-37, in its opener; then rallied past UGA on the strength of two defensive scores and a touchdown from special teams. In fact, the Gamecocks have scored five non-offensive TD's thus far.
Two of them last weekend best exemplify the overall athleticism unseen by Niumatalolo in his Navy tenure. Both were scored by defensive lineman Melvin Ingram.
According to ESPN's Sean McDonough, who is as well prepared as anyone calling play-by-play, Ingram is able to punt left-footed and throw a football 70 yards right-handed. Ingram wears No. 6 -- most unusual for his position -- because he wore it in high school. "Quick six," he explained to the ESPN crew.
And though aware of Ingram's all-round exploits, McDonough seemed almost incredulous after seeing the 276-pounder take the snap on a fake punt and race 69 yards to the end zone, outmaneuvering Bulldogs along the way. In fact, McDonough suspected that it was USC's other "6" -- receiver D'Angelo Smith dons the duplicate number.
Nope, upon further review, it was Ingram; the same guy who would later score on a fumble recovery off a sack and seal the victory as part of the "good hands" team by securing an on-sides kick.
This -- along with All-America running back Marcus Lattimore, All-America wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey and heralded freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney -- is what the Mids must deal with this week.
Then there's Spurrier, who's never suffered a loss in 42 games as a head coach against non-BCS automatic qualifiers.
"(Spurrier) is one of the greatest game-day guys who ever coached football," said Niumatalolo, who agrees with the analogy likening Spurrier's eye as an offensive play-caller to that of ex-Navy coach Paul Johnson. "You don't win that many games unless you can adjust."
In preparing for Spurrier and the Gamecocks, Niumatalolo doesn't want to be distracted by anything beyond the Mids' control.
"It's hard to simulate their size and speed," he says. "We'll game plan the best that we can.
"We can't control what South Carolina is doing right now. We can only control how we prepare. We've got to play how we did against Notre Dame last year. We can't turn the ball over, we can't have penalties to give ourselves a chance."
The last few days, Niumatalolo has concerned himself mostly with making sure the Midshipmen are as close to full strength as possible.
"We have to be smart in how we're practicing," said Niumatalolo, who guided Navy to victories over nationally-ranked Wake Forest (2008) and Notre Dame (2009). "Once we're there, we want to be as fresh as possible."
He's consulted with the team's training and coaching staffs, trying to ensure that nagging injuries aren't aggravated or exaggerated in practice.
"What can we do to help guys get better?" he says. "For example, maybe so-and-so doesn't need to work on certain drills that might cause him additional pain."
Niumatalolo goes so far as to scrutinize the seating chart for the team charter. Sleep is among a Midshipman's most precious commodities, so he wants open seats between starters. With room to spread out, Niumatalolo concludes, they have a better chance of napping on the short flight to Columbia.
Now, regarding the atmosphere once Navy shows up on Saturday evening, Niumatalolo understands there's no way to fully match the sounds, decibel-for-decibel, of Williams-Brice packed by fans in full throat.
Nonetheless, he's sought to give the Mids a truly rough idea of what they'll encounter. For that, Niumatalolo enlisted assistant video coordinator Todd Green.
"We're trying to get ready for the crowd noise," Niumatalolo said of songs and sounds blaring throughout practices this week.
Green credits former player, Midn. Conor Krebs, for creating a continuous loop of music and crowd noise culled from various internet sites, including the Gamecocks Online YouTube channel. Krebs's work involved dubbing the sound off videos.
One is a clip of the Carolina student section crazily waving their white towels to Sandstorm, a 12-year old song produced by the Finnish D.J. Darude. Like an older classic from the German composer, Strauss, it's become a staple at Williams-Brice.
And no matter how often it's heard, whether in Bowling Green or along the Severn River, it will never sound the same as on Saturday night, live from South Carolina.