Mutka: Irish seniors relish ND experience
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent August 20, 2012 11:18PM
TAB MUG MUTKA 100109 Andy Lavalley/Post-Tribune ptmet
Updated: September 22, 2012 6:13AM
Something about the Notre Dame experience leaves a lasting impression on players who pass through its portals.
Whether it’s going through that tunnel with all its mythology, which comes close to being an out-of-body experience, or revering the giant mural of Touchdown Jesus near the stadium the area has an undeniable aura.
Copper statues of such bronzed giants as Rockne, Leahy and Holtz, sentinels who stand guard around the football fortress, add lustre to a faded legend. The Irish have been largely irrelevant on the national stage since they beat West Virginia for the title in 1988 (a 2-10 bowl record and six no-shows since 1994), but NBC-TV keeps them on the map.
Seniors like safety Zeke Motta, center Braxton Cave and linebacker Manti Te’o relish the Notre Dame experience. Underclassmen can only suspect it.
Being mentored by Harrison Smith, now with the Vikings, helped Motta make that transition from awe to appreciation.
“I looked up to ‘Harry’ a lot,” says Motta, who will be appearing in his 39th consecutive game when the Irish cross the pond to play Navy in Dublin, Ireland.
Senior seasoning proved invaluable for the 215-pound warrior from Vero Beach, Florida.
“I’ve progressed mentally,” says Motta, who has started 16 games in the last two years. “It’s beautiful to see that transformation in myself.”
The last chapter has yet to be written, but Motta believes the Irish can contend for a national championship.
To make it happen they must develop consistency. Last year they finished 8-5 with an 0-2 start and an 0-2 finish in between an 8-1 run.
Losing to USF in their opener set the tone for a bizarre season.
“Definitely weird,” admits Motta. “Strange happenings.”
Unquestionably the Irish could have finished with a 10-3 record, but blew double-digit leads in the fourth quarter against Michigan (24-7) and Florida State (14-3, Champs Sports Bowl).
Motta came up with a career highlight against the Seminoles, returning a fumble 29 yards for a touchdown.
“Couldn’t have done it without Manti forcing it,” he says with a smile, sharing his magic moment with the All-American linebacker.
Quarterback issues continue to pop up, but Motta still talks the talk when prompted.
“Definitely,” he says. “High hopes for that.”
It’s a question of pride, but not necessarily reality based.
“What kind of a team would you be if you didn’t expect and set those type of goals for yourself?” Motta asks.
A fast start is essential for a team without a conference connection to ease the sting of early losses. Under Brian Kelly that’s been missing. Two years ago the Irish never recovered from a 1-and-3 opening disaster. To lurch from the gate for the third straight time would infuriate Notre Dame’s subway alumni.
“We have a good brotherhood,” Motta insists. “It’s going to be a fun season.”
Nearly every highly recruited player who attends Notre Dame dreams of moving to the next level. Motta is no exception.
“If not there’s always Plan ‘B’” says the industrial design major. “Get a job. Use the degree.”
Notre Dame has extended Cave’s comfort zone, keeping the home-body within a 50-mile radius of the Golden Dome for most of his life. The fifth-year senior played his high school football at Penn in nearby Mishawaka, a perennial 5A powerhouse which routinely makes state championship game appearances.
“Being a local guy I’ve always had people to lean on,” he concedes. “I’ve gotten community support for my entire life,”
Outside of a visit to Mexico Cave’s never strayed across the border so he’s looking forward to the impending trip to Ireland. Ancestral ties make it even more special.
His father, Rick, claims Irish lineage dating back a couple of generations.
“I’ve always wanted to go there,” says the fifth-year senior. “My dad’s always talking about it.”
Coming into the season Cave has appeared in 35 games with 22 starts spread over the last two years.
Like Motta he grew from a wide-eyed teen to an adult on campus with the help of Notre Dame’s big-brother approach. Eric Olson, who now plays for the Saints, was his mentor.
“He really made me feel at home,” Cave says. “Eric’s one of those guys I looked up to. Now I’m one of those guys. I’ve become a man.”
A 305-pound one at that.
“I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone by,” he says. “It seems like yesterday.”
Five years ago? Just a drop in the bucket.
Ditto for Te’o, who appreciates how much former teammates Darius Fleming (49ers) and Jimmy Clausen (Carolina) helped him make a smooth transition.
“Darius was like my older brother,” Te’o says. “I love him to death. He’s going to be at my wedding.”
Since they’re both linebackers it was easy to understand their bonding. Not so much with Clausen. A quarterback hooking up with Te’o seems like an odd coupling.
“Jimmy showed me the ropes, introducing me to everybody,” Te’o says. “We hung out.”
In his final year nostalgia is beginning to form.
“I feel every part of the campus and am going to spend as much time on it as possible on my off-days,” he says. “I’m going to miss this place. I already do and I’m still here.”
Te’o almost envies Notre Dame’s newcomers.
“It goes by so fast,” he says, wistfully. “They don’t understand that.”
Four years from now they will with the help of the seniors.