When the Navy football team kicked off its season against Notre Dame on Sept. 1 in Dublin, the official attendance figure was 48,820 at Aviva Stadium. That same day, thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, Penn State was playing its opener in State College, Pa., in front of an announced crowd that was more than twice that of the Emerald Isle Classic.
So with the Midshipmen expecting attendance to surpass 100,000 for their game at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo conducted practice with a sound system piping in crowd noise to acclimate his players to hostile surroundings.
It’s a tactic the team has used in encounters with other traditional Bowl Championship Series powers such as Ohio State and South Carolina, and in both those instances, Navy nearly escaped with victories despite being a big underdog.
“It’s not too often you can get 100,000 people together,” Niumatalolo said following practice earlier this week. “We’ve got our little speakers over here, and we spent some money on that, but it’s still not 100,000 people. I think playing in that stadium two weeks ago, it wasn’t 100,000 people, but it was a pretty raucous crowd. Hopefully that helps.”
The last time Navy played a BCS opponent before a crowd similar in size to the average Penn State home game was in 2011 against South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium.
In front of 78,807, the Midshipmen kept standout wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in check, but tailback Marcus Lattimore ran for 246 yards, including the clinching touchdown with 12 minutes 45 seconds remaining, to rally the Gamecocks to a 24-21 victory.
“South Carolina, for me personally and for a lot of guys, that was the loudest and biggest crowd we’ve been in front of,” senior linebacker Brye French said. “But over 100,000 fans, that’s pretty awesome. We’re all excited, but there’s really no way to prepare for that.”
In their 2009 opener, the Midshipmen visited Ohio Stadium, another traditionally inhospitable venue for opponents, and came within a two-point conversion of upsetting the Buckeyes, then ranked No. 6, in front of 105,092.
Navy had scored a touchdown with 2:23 left in regulation to get within 29-27 and was attempting the tying two-point conversion, but Brian Rolle intercepted Midshipmen quarterback Ricky Dobbs’s pass and returned it to the end zone to provide the final margin, 31-27.
Among the measures Navy implemented in practice this week in anticipation of deafening crowd noise was having quarterback Trey Miller call plays at the line of scrimmage only a few feet from the booming speakers. The excessive noise compelled the offensive line, running backs and wide receivers to pay special attention so as to avoid committing a false start or mishearing a play.
“As far as the atmosphere, as far as actually knowing what it feels like to stand on the field in front of 100,000 people, the only way you can do that is to have that experience,” said senior running back Bo Snelson, who was a freshman when Navy played at Ohio State. “South Carolina was the closest we had. That stadium was packed. That stadium was loud. It was cool to be in an atmosphere like that and to be considered a viable opponent by somebody who is so good. Hopefully at Penn State we can feed off that energy and come out swinging.”
In trying to avoid its first 0-2 start in seven years, Navy also has had an extra week to prepare for Penn State following the Midshipmen’s earliest bye since 2000. The bye came at an especially favorable juncture for Miller, who hurt his ankle against Notre Dame but continued to play despite a limp.
Miller’s mobility improved during practice this week, but he’ll probably be without starting wide receiver Matt Aiken for a second consecutive game. The junior has not played since hurting his knee in a scrimmage last month.
“We’re playing another big, physical team,” Niumatalolo said. “They’re going to be just like Notre Dame. Way bigger than us, way stronger than us. We know we’re going to get another physical ballgame. That extra time off can only help us, hopefully.”