Manti Te’o plays through pain, leads ND past Michigan State
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or email@example.com September 16, 2012 12:30AM
EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 15: Manti Te'o #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts after beating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 20-3 at Spartan Stadium Stadium on September 15, 2012 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Updated: October 18, 2012 6:16AM
EAST LANSING, Mich. — There were still times, even in the heat of a brutally physical, nationally televised rivalry game between two ranked teams, that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s thoughts drifted to his grandmother, and to his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, both of whom died earlier in the week in the kind of devastating blow that nobody can be expected to handle, let alone a college kid — even one with the perspective and poise that Te’o possesses.
“It’s a great escape,” Te’o said of football in the wake of Notre Dame’s 20-3 win over No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday night. “But I’ll be honest, still, throughout the game, you still think about it.
But football allows me to just be in a realm, in a little world where I can just honor them by the way I play.”
That’s why, after making an interception late in the game to cap a virtuoso performance, Te’o pointed to the sky, then disappeared into the mob of teammates — no, family members — awaiting him on the sideline.
“It was hard, you know?” Te’o said. “I lost two women that I truly love. But I had my family around me. I had my football family around me. I had my girlfriend’s family around me. And at the end of the day, family is forever. I’m going to see them again, and it’s going to be a very happy day when I do.”
Te’o finished with 12 tackles — his 20th career double-digit game — and moved up to sixth on Notre Dame’s all-time list.
“He just played his heart out,” said tailback Cierre Wood, one of Te’o’s close friends.
His play seemed to inspire his teammates, too, as Michigan State’s three points were the fewest ND has given up against a Top 10 opponent since a 51-0 win over USC in 1966.
“All those kids in there were pulling for Manti,” coach Brian Kelly said. “And Manti raised his level, too.”
Kelly said “there’s nobody” like Te’o. Not that he’s ever coached, at least.
“He’s so strong for everybody,” Kelly said.
The Notre Dame fans in attendance chanted Te’o’s name late in the game. He said even the Michigan State fans showed him love.
“It goes to show that people understand that football is just a game,” Te’o said. “It’s a game we play, and we have fun doing it, but at the end of the day, what matters is the people around you, and family.”
Te’o doesn’t know yet if he’ll head home to Hawaii during ND’s off week next week. But he knows he’ll be in South Bend for Saturday’s game against Michigan.
“I’m going to be here,” he said. “Because I know at the end of the day, they’re still watching.”
Slaughter out for season: The celebration of Notre Dame’s big win was tempered by the loss of starting strong safety Jamoris Slaughter for the season after he tore his Achilles on the first snap of the second half. Slaughter, a fifth-year senior, is the second starting defensive back ND has lost with an Achilles injury, joining cornerback Lo Wood on the sideline.
Redshirt freshman Matthias Farley, who has played well in the early going, will replace Slaughter. That gives the Irish three first-year starters in the secondary, and all of them are converted offensive players — cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and true freshman KeiVarae Russell, and Farley.
“Those are things that coaches have to deal with all over the country,” said ND coach Brian Kelly, who was particularly pleased with Russell’s development over the first three games. “We’re seeing the development of some really young players that can be really good players for us. We don’t have to hide those guys.”
Slaughter also missed much of the Purdue game with a shoulder injury, and the Irish defense fared well without him in both games. But it’s still a big blow to a defense that was coming into its own.
“You lose a Jamoris Slaughter, you’re losing an ‘A’ player,” Kelly said. “Matthias is certainly not at the level yet of a Jamoris Slaughter. But we have a lot of confidence and trust in him, and he’ll be getting a lot of work back there. We’ll have to continue to develop him, but we have a lot of confidence in him.”