Te'o's final game at Notre Dame sets tone in Alabama onslaught

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Te'o's final game at Notre Dame sets tone in Alabama onslaught

As Manti Te'o goes, so go the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Throughout 2012, that wasn't a problem. After all, Te'o won seven major awards and finished with the most Heisman Trophy votes of any solely defensive player in history it makes sense to follow suit. It's a good call. Undefeated good. BCS No. 1 ranking good.

That Manti Te'o wasn't on the field Monday night in South Florida.

Even Manti Te'o wasn't sure what player was on the field.

Te'o's final game of his college career was the most important. It might also have been his worst. The Irish followed Te'o's suit and lost 42-14 to an Alabama team that dominated the Fighting Irish from the opening kickoff.

Notre Dame coaches let it slip in the seemingly never-ending buildup to Monday's game that Te'o had only missed two tackles all season. By the time Alabama was up 14-0, Te'o had missed two critical tackles.

By the end of the first half, the total was four. The unofficial number at the end of the game was seven.

What happened to the once-invincible Te'o? He was a step behind all game, and at times, he looked weak.

Before Monday's game, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco proclaimed that Te'o was practicing harder, despite his extensive travel schedule that jet-settted him around the nation for awards ceremonies.

Was he too distracted? Was he burned out? It doesn't matter. Te'o was manhandled by any and all Alabama blockers, and while it's impossible to say if Te'o's performance was induced by Alabama's manhandling offensive line or if it just appeared easier for Te'o to be manhandled because of his poor play, either way, the result was the same, and it was obvious from the first series of the game.

Before the game, fans in the stands of Sun Life Stadium had chanted "Manti Te'o" for over an hour. As Eddie Lacy ran over Notre Dame's superman for the game's first touchdown, the chants stopped. Reality set in, and the Irish were issued a wake up call.

Postgame, Notre Dame players all said that after Alabama took the first possession of the game 80 yards to the endzone without much resistance, they knew they had to make a stop.

Again, when the Tide rolled into the end zone on their second drive, the Irish had to step up their game.

By the time the score was 28-0, hope had been lost. The Irish were playing for pride, the National Championship had already been decided.

"Life goes on," Te'o said. "I had a lot of opportunities to make some plays and I didn't. But I played as hard as I could, and yeah, there were some plays that I could have done better on."

Te'o will shift his focus to April's NFL Draft. On Sunday afternoon, Te'o was considered a mid-first-round prospect by analysts and yahoos. Monday's game will assure that status will be questioned.

Te'o had composed perspective after the game and insisted that he'll use Monday's underwhelming performance as fuel to improve himself.

"That's all you can use it for," Te'o said. "What are you going to take form this? Are you going to sulk, and sit back? Or are you going to do something about it?"

For Notre Dame, it’s time to ‘rewrite the story of the season’

For Notre Dame, it’s time to ‘rewrite the story of the season’

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has three losses, fired its defensive coordinator and, just four weeks into the season, there's a real possibility it'll fall short of bowl eligibility for the first time in nine years. That’s the current story of the Irish, and it won’t change unless plenty else does in South Bend.

Jettisoning Brian VanGorder was one of those changes, and getting a number of new players onto the field on Saturdays could be another. But the most important change Notre Dame can make over its final eight games is simply winning them.  

“We've put ourselves in a pretty bad situation and it's time to wake up and fight back and rewrite the story of this season,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “And that's what we fully intend to do.”

Notre Dame, though, can’t walk into MetLife Stadium on Saturday, make a bunch of mistakes and still beat Syracuse, as they did two years ago. In Year 1 of the Dino Babers era, Syracuse’s up-tempo, Baylor-style offense has turned heads and will create a challenge for Notre Dame’s underperforming secondary. 

Quarterback Eric Dungey — who may or may not have been nursing an undisclosed injury this week — threw for 407 yards against Bob Diaco’s UConn defense last week and ranks third in FBS with 179 passing attempts (he’s averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and has nine touchdowns against three interceptions). This offense has one speed: Get the ball, throw the ball, get it again, throw it again. Syracuse is averaging 86 plays per game, a number that sticks out given Texas ripped off 50 points against the Irish on Sept. 4 on… 86 plays. 

Notre Dame’s secondary, meanwhile, is allowing an abysmal 9.1 yards per attempt (121st in FBS) and will have to find a way to stop Orange receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, who leads FBS with 706 yards and is fifth with 40 receptions. Dungey, on average, targets Etta-Tawo 13 times a game. Merely playing good coverage isn’t enough to deter Dungey from throwing him the ball, so Cole Luke, Nick Coleman, Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr. or whoever is on him on Saturday will also have to make plays with the ball in the air, since it's going to be coming their way. 

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The narrative Notre Dame coaches and players pitched publicly this week involved having more energy, more fun, more passion, more fire — whatever you want to throw into Thesaurus.com — and that translating into this defense playing better starting Saturday. 

“I think a lot of guys were out there tense, tightened up and weren’t playing loose,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “And I think we’ve seen a lot of guys let loose this week and it’s been a real positive atmosphere.”

But nobody will be having any fun on Saturday if the same issues that got VanGorder fired re-emerge. Sacks, tackles for a loss, forced fumbles (Notre Dame hasn’t had one of those this year), interceptions — those are what “fun” is a tangible outcome of, not the other way around. 

Notre Dame’s offense has been good enough to win in a vacuum (47 points against Texas, 28 points against Michigan State and 35 points against Duke, in theory, should’ve been enough to go at least 2-1) but hasn’t been good enough to pick up for the lagging defense. Kelly has been hard on quarterback DeShone Kizer, saying his play against Michigan State and Duke was below standard, an assessment Kizer agreed with this week. 

The standard, at least in broad terms, is getting the offense to overcome the defense’s deficiencies. Syracuse’s defense is allowing a Lamar Jackson-skewed 7.31 yards per play against FBS opponents and ranks in the lower third of college football in most defensive categories. Duke’s defense at least did a few things well heading into last Saturday; it’s harder to find the positives for Syracuse. 

So this game, on paper, looks like it’ll devolve into another high-scoring shootout. 

“My standard right now is to do whatever I can to help lead the offense to get a win,” Kizer said. “We're 1 and 3, and that's unacceptable, and my only goal right now, my only mission is to buy in to everything that's been said in this meeting room right here to get a W on the board because that's all that matters at this point.”

A loss to Syracuse very well could be the start of a death knell for Notre Dame’s bowl eligibility chances. A win could help reinforce the positive attitude coaches have worked to instill in their players, proving to this team that the changes were for the better. 

There’s a lot at stake on Saturday in New Jersey for Notre Dame, which certainly wasn’t the expectation for this game a month ago. It’s not only bowl eligibility, but if things go haywire again, it could mean more jobs will be on the line than just the defensive coordinator. 

“If this team is not playing well, it's my fault,” Kelly said. “It's my fault that they're not playing well. So I have to find the solutions to it. After a game, when you're frustrated with the play, everybody is on notice. I'm on notice, and I made that pretty clear that I'm responsible. I said our coaches were on notice, and I said our players were on notice.

“Because we're all in this together. We all spend the same amount of time. If I didn't make that clear, I will make that clear one last time and then we're going to move on: Everybody is on notice, and is it starts with the head coach.”

Podcast: Previewing Notre Dame-Syracuse and Greg Hudson's defense

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Podcast: Previewing Notre Dame-Syracuse and Greg Hudson's defense

The first game of Notre Dame's post-Brian VanGorder era kicks off Saturday at MetLife Stadium, but switching coordinators may not guarantee an Irish defensive turnaround.

In the latest edition of the Still Independent Podcast, Mike Monaco and I broke down what to expect when Notre Dame faces Eric Dungey, Amba Etta-Tawo and the Orange's up-tempo offense Saturday in New Jersey. Plus, we look at what Notre Dame's defense could look like with Brian Kelly taking an increased role in it and Greg Hudson taking over as defensive coordinator.

Listen to the episode below: