POSTED: 10:56 a.m. HST, Sep 16, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 04:47 p.m. HST, Sep 16, 2012
EAST LANSING, Mich. >> His lost his grandmother to age on Tuesday. He lost his girlfriend to leukemia on Wednesday. Saturday night, Manti Te'o played linebacker for Notre Dame, a senior team leader with a heavy heart, who made 12 tackles, and pointed to the sky after some of them.
"That was for them," he would say later, one of his most important Notre Dame games over, one of his longest weeks done.
It's been awhile since Notre Dame won a game like this, so pardon the confusion. Is it wake up the thunder and shake down the echoes, or the other way around? Either way, Notre Dame is making noise, Saturday night's 20-3 victory over Michigan State the loudest bang yet.
"A signature win," Brian Kelly called it. And it wasn't hard to find the player who inspired the Irish most.
"It was hard," Te'o said. "I lost two women that I truly loved. But I had my family around me, I had my football family around me, I had my girlfriend's family around me. At the end of the day, families are forever."
College seniors do not often feel such loss, let alone twice in 48 hours. But there was never a doubt he would play.
"I'll never forget this week and I'll never forget him," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said.
They had sat Te'o down, and told them whatever he needed, he could have. "We want you to take care of you. If you want to go home, whatever you want to do," Swarbrick said to him.
"What I need right now is to be with my guys," Te'o answered.
"He told us he loved us," noseguard Louis Nix III said Saturday night. "That's all that needed to be said."
So they all practiced and mourned and got ready to play.
"It's a great escape," Te'o said. "I'll be honest, throughout the game, you still think about (them). But football allowed me to be in a little realm, a little world where I know I can honor them by the way I play."
Added Kelly,"He's so strong for everybody, that when he was in a (tough) time, everybody wanted to help him out, and I've never seen that kind of dynamic amongst a team and a group of players.
"It's a pretty close locker room."
On this night,the Irish didn't bend. They didn't break. They didn't budge. They won even though their quarterback was 14-for-32 passing. It was not pretty, this game of 16 punts.
Is Notre Dame really back, ready to live up to its hype, its tradition and its NBC television contract? Ready to drown out the cynics and critics with another verse of the fight song? Can't say yet. The Irish climbed the ladder from Navy to Purdue to Michigan State, but Michigan is the next step and further up the way are Oklahoma and USC. Then we'll know.
Saturday night was not about proving what they will do. It was about suggesting what they might do.
"As soon as we hit the locker room, he brought us back down to earth," running back Cierre Wood said of Kelly.
Notre Dame beat a top-10 opponent in Michigan State. The last time that happened, Kelly was coaching at Central Michigan. 2005.
Notre Dame is 3-0. The last time that happened, current quarterback Everett Golson was nine years old. 2002.
Notre Dame held the Spartans under seven points at home. That hadn't happened in 21 years.
The offense did not exactly hum, but didn't hand away the football, either. Easily the most noticeable aspect of a Notre Dame renaissance would be the elimination of mistakes. After three games in 2011, the Irish had 13 turnovers. This season,they have two.
Notre Dame is learning how to win these kind of games, with poise and experience and luck. These are the kind of days Kelly must have if his program is to ever fully take off and soar.
"We're not even close to where we can be, especially on the offensive side of the ball," Kelly said, who explained Notre Dame's considerable confusion on its opening series -- a penalty and a timeout in the first seven second -- on the wrist bands the players were wearing that carried the first plays.
"We've got high SAT marks, but for some reason, the wristband thing threw them for a loop."
No problem after that, though.
Swarbrick, as an interested observer, mentioned "a real focus on going back to how Notre Dame has to play. It's got to be defense and the two lines, and these guys have embraced that."
Kelly talked of a developing defense that is "starting to get to that level that can play against anybody."
We're not sure where the Irish are going, but they appear to be on their way. Michigan is next, and Te'o will stay and get ready again. No funerals yet.
"I'm going to be here. Because I know at the end of the day, they're still watching."