Music blared at Navy football practice throughout the week in Annapolis, giving the Midshipmen a feel of what they will experience tonight in Columbia, S.C., inside Williams-Brice Stadium. Coaches stopped drills to remind the players about the size, speed and accomplishments of some of their South Carolina counterparts.
The Midshipmen didn't blink.
"Our approach is that we're just going to put our heads down and go to work," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said Wednesday after practice. "We're like mules, we're going to go down in the mine and be there all day and see what we have. We might have dirt or gold or whatever. We're going to stay in the mine until it's time to play."
Niumatalolo joked Monday that Navy might look like "Boy Scout Troop 577" compared with some of South Carolina's Southeastern Conference opponents, but he knows that his team has faced other highly ranked, highly favored teams in the recent past and fared well.
Though Navy (2-0) understands that it will be overmatched physically and athletically by the mostly bigger, stronger and faster Gamecocks, the thought of facing No. 10 South Carolina (2-0) on the road is not any more daunting than playing Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., or Ohio State in Columbus.
That the Midshipmen beat the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in 2007 — breaking a 44-year losing streak, the longest in Division I-A football at the time — and nearly upset the then-No. 6 Buckeyes at The Horseshoe in the 2009 season opener, gives Navy a quiet confidence that 18-point underdogs shouldn't rightfully possess.
Then again, not many college football players go through the rigors the Midshipmen experience in their daily lives.
It is just another challenge, except one that will be played out before 85,000 screaming fans and a national television audience.
"I do look at it as being a challenge, same as the academy is a challenge," said senior defensive end and co-captain Jabaree Tuani. "It is different because it is a competition and the better man will win that day."
Said senior fullback and co-captain Alexander Teich: "Getting to play in front of 80,000-something fans, it's really easy for us to get up for. It's something you come here for, to play the Notre Dames, the South Carolinas. You're very excited about, just to be in a stadium like that, an atmosphere like that, it's not something you see every day."
Tuani and Teich have twice been on the winning side against Notre Dame and were sophomores when Navy came within an intercepted two-point conversion pass of taking the lead on Ohio State late in the 2009 opener. But many of the Midshipmen have not been in that kind of setting.
"You feel good from one standpoint that we've been in some tough situations, some tough environments and our guys have played well, but it's a totally different team," said Niumatalolo, who has his team off to the school's first 2-0 start in five years. "This is a new year, a new team, anything that happened in the past doesn't guarantee anything for the future. We're excited about it, we're excited to go. We might get pummeled 70-0, but we're excited for this opportunity."
The teams played regularly between 1982 and 1988 and while the Midshipmen won only once, it was memorable — a 38-21 upset of the then-unbeaten, No. 2 Gamecocks going into their final regular-season game in 1984.
Niumatalolo also knows that this South Carolina team could be different from other ranked opponents Navy has played in the recent past.
"This is the most athletic team that we've ever seen," Niumatalolo said. "It's the most athletic team that I've ever seen in my 14 years here" as a head coach and assistant.
Just as the Gamecocks have to try to figure out who to stop first in Navy's triple option — Teich, senior quarterback Kriss Proctor or a stable of slotbacks that will be missing injured senior Aaron Santiago — the Midshipmen have a similar dilemma in trying to contain sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore, junior receiver Alshon Jeffery or quarterback Stephen Garcia.
"You want to make a team more one-dimensional," Tuani said. "If they can run and pass, you really don't know what they're going to do the next play."
Just as Navy's coaches have told the players about Lattimore and Jeffery, as well as defensive stars Melvin Ingram (two touchdowns in last week's 45-42 win at Georgia) and Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has reminded the Gamecocks that the Midshipmen lead the country in rushing, have beaten Notre Dame three of the past four years and have a 9-9-2 record against SEC teams. (He probably didn't mention that a 63-0 win over South Carolina came in 1920, long before the Gamecocks joined the SEC.)