Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro (3) dives for a first down as Boston College's Sean Sylvia (19) defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012. Wake Forest won 28-14. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Updated: December 19, 2012 1:43PM
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Already feeling out of place — a Hawaiian kid shivering in the snow in northern Indiana — and watching a mediocre Notre Dame team limp to the finish line of another mediocre season with a one-point loss to Syracuse on Senior Day, it would have been understandable if high school senior Manti Te’o had written off the Irish completely.
But something about the way the Irish reacted to the loss — the rawness of the ordeal — resonated with Te’o, always a kid mature beyond his years.
“I just felt how sad it was,” Te’o recalled. “Amongst the cold and the snow and all that, I think the worst part of that was to see the pain in the players’ eyes as they were crying, leaving the stadium — not because they lost, but because that was their last experience playing under the dome.”
Four years later, Te’o — who cited the chance to experience his own Senior Day as a big reason for his decision to spurn the NFL and return to South Bend — will smack the sign and run out of the tunnel for the last time Saturday, with about 40 friends and family in the stadium, as the Irish host Wake Forest.
Notre Dame has had a troubling trend of sluggish efforts at home this season. But the Irish expect the Senior Day emotions to carry them as they continue to chase a perfect season and a national championship.
“You never want to send your seniors out with a loss,” said Te’o’s best friend and high school teammate Robby Toma, also a senior. “It’s going to be our last time in that stadium together with his team. We’re going to play with a lot of emotion, but it’ll be controlled emotion.”
The fifth-year seniors on this team — guys like defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, receiver John Goodman, and linemen Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr. — came to Notre Dame in the wake of the 2007 debacle, a three-win season that was Notre Dame’s worst in 44 years. The next class — guys like Te’o, Toma, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, Zack Martin and Zeke Motta — endured three middling campaigns before this season’s stunning rise to the top of the rankings. The miseries of years past have made this soaring swan song sweeter.
“The one thing that keeps me going is you can’t really forget where you came from,” Lewis-Moore said. “Thinking about those lows when we first got here, and just seeing this thing grow, seeing this program grow — it’s just something amazing.”
A slip-up against Wake Forest — a team that actually led the Irish at the half last year before two third-quarter touchdowns gave Notre Dame a 24-17 victory — would end those championship dreams before the Irish even finish the season at USC next week. Wake Forest is just 5-5, with a pass defense and a rush offense hovering near the bottom of the nation, but the Deacons have forced six fumbles in their past five games — holding three of those opponents to fewer than 55 yards on the ground — and Notre Dame has turned the ball over five times in the last two weeks.
Key player: Wake Forest wideout Michael Campanaro figures to play a heavy role for the Deacons, who shouldn’t be able to do much in the ground game against the Irish. Campanaro has had 12 or more catches three times this season, including 16 two weeks ago against Boston College. He’s also thrown three touchdown passes in his career.
Wake will win if: The Irish have a complete and utter team meltdown.
ND will win if: The Irish stick to what works — controlling time of possession on the ground, limiting turnovers, and playing stifling defense.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Wake Forest 9
— Mark Lazerus,