Manti Te’o walked through the broad tunnel in the corner of the Los Angeles Coliseum for the final time Saturday night with the smattering of faithful fans that remained cheering his name.
Manti Te'o is just the second Notre Dame player in program history to record thre straight seasons with more than 100 tackles.
It was a moment the Hawaiian linebacker dreamed of as a young USC fan. Only this wasn’t the picture that danced in his head. He wasn’t wearing the Trojans scarlet uniform. Instead, he wore Notre Dame’s blue jersey and pumped its gold helmet in the air. No, this was reality, a scene beyond his wildest dreams.
Te’o came to South Bend directed away from his childhood favorite USC by a well-documented prayer four years ago. He has since become the face of a facelift in South Bend, the leader of a return to prominence that many thought was no longer possible for Notre Dame.
“If there was anything I could say it’s that Heavenly Father answers prayers in ways that you don’t know,” Te’o said outside the Irish locker room Saturday night. “You may not see it at the time. It may seem that the odds of something happening are crazy. But if you pray and you actually listen and you are encouraged to do what the Lord tells you to do, He’ll provide a way. I’m just grateful that I was smart enough to listen.”
Te’o finished his final regular season game at Notre Dame with five tackles.His second stop of the day was No. 100 on the season, making him just the second player in school history to top the century mark in three consecutive seasons.
He intercepted his seventh pass of the season to start the third quarter of a 22-13 win over the Trojans when rookie quarterback Max Wittek lost track of Te’o dropping into coverage. The pick put Te’o in second place nationally for interceptions, behind only Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, and made him the only linebacker this century to intercept seven passes in a season.
He followed that by helping to keep USC out of the end zone from inside the 5-yard line twice in the fourth quarter. The first time his pass defense forced the Trojans to settle for a field goal. USC puts it top two receiver, junior Robert Woods and Marqise Lee in the slot on opposite ends of the ball and attacked the middle of the field. Te'o went one-on-one with the Lee and forced him to the back line of the end zone where the country's leading receiver couldn't haul in a high pass.
Irish coach Brian Kelly saw the play as one last line on Te’o’s resume for the Heisman Trophy.
“If a guy like Manti Te’o is not going to win the Heisman they should just make it an offensive award. Just give it to an offensive player every year and cut to the chase,“ Kelly said. “If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I don’t know how Manti Te’o is held out of that conversation.”
Te’o is all but guaranteed a trip to New York City in December when the Downtown Athletic Club decides who will be called the year’s most outstanding football player. He’ll have to wrestle the bronze statue away from Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who most prognosticators believe is in the driver’s seat for the award.
Notre Dame’s favorite loyal son shared a bear hug with his head coach at the end of that Coliseum tunnel as he stepped off the stage Saturday night. Kelly said he could not recall exactly what either said during the embrace, but that it celebrated the penultimate step of a long journey. One that was co-piloted by Kelly and Te’o and has landed the Irish back at the top of the college football mountain.
"I can’t find a leader of a team that matches the values of a team he represents as well as Manti Te’o,” said athletics director Jack Swarbrick. “He is the perfect guy to lead the resurrection of this program.”
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