Zeke Motta’s right leg bounced up and down like a hummingbird’s wing while the senior safety sat in a chair on the second floor of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex Sunday night. Eager to take a swing at No. 2 Alabama, which had just been announced as top-ranked Notre Dame’s opponent in the BCS national championship game in Miami on Jan. 7, Motta couldn’t help but reflect on the past four years.
After three years of being hammered, Zeke Motta and the Irish defense pounded on opponents in 2012
The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder came to South Bend in 2009 via Vero Beach, Fla., with frosted spiked hair and a naïve, teenager’s smile. The three years he and his teammates endured from 2009-11 weathered their faces beyond normal maturation, taking their toll on a group that never expected to lose 16 games in that span.
Like the rest of the senior class, Motta looks back on the undefeated run through the 2012 slate as both vindicating and rejuvenating. Now a man — one whom has witnessed a lot of pain — Motta, from behind a scraggly beard, flashed a partial grin. He’s not completely happy yet.
“That’s right,” said Motta, pointing to the blue team T-shirt with the words ‘Unfinished Business’ popping in gold. “You know what that means, man. We’re not done working out. We’re not done getting after it. It’s unfinished.”
Sunday was merely a formality. The Irish have known since walking off the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum turf they would be playing for the crystal trophy for the first time since 1988. When Alabama escaped with a win over Georgia Saturday night in the Southeastern Conference Championship, it was clear the Tide would roll into Miami to meet Notre Dame.
But when it was made official late Sunday evening, the reality of what the Irish had already accomplished, along with what is still at stake, began to sink in.
“I don’t think I’ve had a better reward in my life,” said Motta, who is tied with junior cornerback Bennett Jackson for second place on the team in total tackles (61) behind senior linebacker Manti Te’o (103). “Being able to say I played at Notre Dame, my senior year [we went] 12-0 and now I have a chance to play for the national championship — it’s the biggest reward that I’ve had. It’s pretty awesome.”
Motta recovered a fumble, broke up two passes and registered two tackles for loss as the unquestioned leader of the Irish secondary — a unit that took a massive graduation hit when captain Harrison Smith was drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings, and injuries seemingly leveled an already green group at the beginning of the year. Junior Lo Wood was primed to start at cornerback before an Achilles rupture in fall camp wiped out his season. Fifth-year safety Jamoris Slaughter, one of the defense’s biggest playmakers, had started 16 games entering this season, but went down with the same injury in the third game of the year at Michigan State.
Still, a patchwork that included junior cornerback Bennett Jackson, a converted wide receiver, freshman corner KeiVarae Russell and sophomore safety Matthias Farley, who didn’t play as a freshman, finished the regular season ranked 21st nationally in passing defense (194.42 yards per game).
Each and every week, pundits and critics expected the secondary to crack and for Notre Dame as a whole to plummet back down to earth. Though ranked No. 2, Alabama (12-1) will likely be favored in the championship.
“I like it. I like it,” Motta said. “I love being an underdog in any game. It’s good. Why do I like that? Because the odds are against you. You get a chance to prove them wrong … prove people wrong; I like that.
“Yeah, we use that mentality to motivate us to make us better and stronger. “We’ll take anybody thinking that we’re not going to win or whatever and use that to our advantage. … When you’re an underdog, or people don’t believe in you, that makes you want to go out and prove everybody wrong. You use that to prepare during the weeks and just think about going out there and doing your job.”
Motta’s last work assignment as a member of the Fighting Irish will come in the city where he was born.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to get back,” he said. “I was born in Miami, so that will be pretty cool. I’ve got some family there. Just to be able to play in the national championship I think is rewarding enough, but the fact that it’s in Florida makes it that much more special.”