There were no momentum-shifting interceptions, no notable helmet-bucking tackles behind the line of scrimmage and no emotional leaps into the Soldier Field stands Saturday night for Irish linebacker Manti Te’o. Still, head coach Brian Kelly didn’t hesitate to call the performance the best he has seen from his defensive superstar.
Manti Te'o leads the Notre Dame defense with 48 tackles thorugh five games this year.
Te’o wrapped up a team-leading 10 tackles in another brick-wall performance that added Miami to a growing list of schools that have failed to reach the end zone against No. 7 Notre Dame. He played sideline-to-sideline defense, Kelly said. And even though the game was devoid of the theatrics that pushed Te’o into the national spotlight in late September, he was as emotionally charged as ever.
“You might think the average person would have a little bit of a dip in energy and focus, and it turned out to be the opposite,” Kelly said. “He was dynamic as a playmaker. He was making plays he hasn't made all year, and I think I am probably resigned to the same fact that you are. He's a unique individual and it doesn't affect him.”
Fresh off of a 14-hour trip each way to and from Oahu to visit family the week before, Te’o delivered for the Irish defense. This week the Te’o family is headed to South Bend to watch their son in action. Forget the 80,000 other fans and the cavalry of media crashing campus this week, Te’o’s extra motivation this week comes from the same two people who have been watching him make tackles since he was eight years old.
“It never gets old. It's always a special feeling when you know that the two people that sacrificed the most for you to be here are in the stands,” he said. “It’s going to be a special occasion.”
Those special occasions have been a regular occurrence this season for the Heisman Trophy candidate. He has risen to each one, leveling his emotions like a wayward receiver on a crossing pattern. On Wednesday, Te’o said what looks like a distraction to most — visiting parents, media attention, family tragedy — sharpens his focus and reminds him to stick to the coaching staff’s mantra of “one day at a time.”
Stanford, he says, is not a big game because the Cardinal have averaged more than 200 rushing yards against the Irish in the last three meetings. Nor is it important because Te’o has typically been the Irish bright spot on defense in those games, piling up 33 tackles in his last two games against the school that pursued him in recruiting as hard as Notre Dame and USC.
A win Saturday is a chance to be 6-0, he said, and a chance to improve himself. Kelly marveled at the senior’s drive to continue to get better each week despite already looking like the best linebacker in college football. There isn’t much left to improve when watching with the naked eye.
“Sometimes I'll take a false step here or there,” he said. “It's just eliminating the small things, false stepping, keep my pad level low, just little things that can help me get from point A to B a little faster, looking at different, just stuff I can do with me eyes.”
Each step will count Saturday against 17th-ranked Stanford with a physical offensive line and its affinity for running the football, which is what gets Te’o more excited than anything else swirling around him this week.
“Old school, smash mouth football,” he said. “It's football at its purest. It's going to be fun.”