CORAL GABLES, Fla. >> Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o knows all about the rivalry between the Fighting Irish and Miami.
He understands the history of it, and the importance of Saturday’s matchup at Soldier field in Chicago – the first regular-season matchup between the two teams in 22 years.
It’s not surprising, because Te’o is flirting with a bit of history himself. The native of Hawaii’s fantastic start to the 2012 season has inserted him into the Heisman Trophy conversation. If the No. 9 Irish win Saturday and improve to 5-0, Te’o’s credentials will be bolstered.
“I’ve seen some of it,” Te’o said of the Heisman talk this week. “It’s definitely very exciting and it was very humbling at the same time.”
But it’s been Te’o that’s been humbling opponents this season. He’s averaging 9.5 tackles per game so far in 2012, but more importantly, he’s been a disruptive force for the Irish defense. Notre Dame has forced opponents into 13 turnovers this season, the fifth-highest total in the nation, and Te’o has been involved in more than half.
The All-American has three interceptions (No. 1 among linebackers and sixth nationally among all players), two recovered fumbles and two quarterback hurries which forced interceptions.
“Te’o, in the middle, is as good as advertised,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “(He) holds it all together, and does a great job running the operation for them.”
Breaking down that operation will fall to Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, who, after a record-setting game last week, will be asked to do what has only been done three times this season – get into the end zone against Notre Dame.
The Irish are only allowing a paltry nine points per game, and while Te’o has a lot to do with that, he’s not taking on 11 opponents alone.
“I don’t think anyone has run for a touchdown on them all year long,” Golden said in his weekly press conference.
Golden was correct in his statement, Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game as the only team in the country not to allow a rushing touchdown.
That doesn’t affect the Hurricanes much – their success is predicated on the play of the mercurial Morris, who will go against an inexperienced Notre Dame secondary. Among the four starting defensive backs, only senior safety Zeke Motta came to Notre Dame as a defender.
The Hurricanes lead the nation with 11 completions of 40 yards or more. Notre Dame, despite that inexperience in the secondary, has only allowed one pass of 40 or more yards this year.
Much of the credit for that, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, goes to Te’o and the Notre Dame pass rush. The Irish run mostly zone defenses to prevent one-on-one match ups for wide receivers the inexperienced secondary, something that the Hurricanes will look to do all game. The onus for Notre Dame falls on the front-seven to chase the quarterback and force bad decisions – something Te’o and company has been adept at so far.
“Obviously they’re going to want to stretch the field,” Kelly said of Miami. “This will be a challenge for us. But it’s not just for our four guys in the back end. It’s linebackers being in the right place.”
Te’o is playing with some extra weight, emotionally, after his grandmother and girlfriend died within 24 hours of each other less than a month ago. Te’o opted to play after the passings, and had a virtuosic performance against Michigan State, helping the Irish hold the Spartans to their lowest offensive output in 46 years.
“’(Football) is a great escape,” Te’o said after that game.
For everyone else, there is no escape, not from Te’o.