MLB Te'o is key to Notre Dame's defensive success


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This isn't the first time in the past 20 years that Notre Dame has undergone a so-called "return to glory." So what makes this Irish squad different than teams like Charlie Weis' 2005 group that showed a lot of sizzle but failed to deliver?

It's all about the defense.

It might be a surprise to some, given Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's offensive pedigree, but Notre Dame's defense is the reason the Irish are ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings (No. 4 in AP poll) and playing for a shot at the national championship.

Notre Dame is ranked second in scoring defense in Division I-A, allowing just 9.88 points per game, trailing only Alabama. The Irish rushing defense is ninth, holding opponents to 95.25 yards per game.

"We've just got to keep believing," Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "We always want to be the No. 1 defense in the country, like everybody wants to be the No. 1 defense in the country. We just look forward to every day, getting better every day."

The star of the defense is middle linebacker Manti Te'o, who has garnered Heisman Trophy buzz and, if all the stars align for him, could be the first defense-only player to win the award. Te'o leads the Irish with 80 total tackles and tops the team with five interceptions.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst said that what makes Te'o so special is the other players on Notre Dame's defense, who do their jobs to allow him to make big plays.

"As good as Te'o is, and I think he's a special player, they've got a lot of other guys that really make it work," Chryst said.

Lewis-Moore, defensive tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt anchor a front seven that allowed its first rushing touchdown of the season last week in a 30-13 win against Oklahoma.

The most surprising part of the Irish defense likely is the secondary, where cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell are first-year starters. Both were recruited to play on the other side of the ball. Russell is a true freshman who switched to cornerback from running back this summer.

"They've been growing up every game," Lewis-Moore said. "They're getting better, and it's been awesome watching those guys grow up."

Last week against Oklahoma, the Irish allowed Sooners quarterback Landry Jones to throw for 364 yards, but clamped down when it mattered and yielded only one touchdown.

It also helped that Notre Dame held the Sooners to 15 yards rushing. Only three opponents have topped 100 yards on the ground this season.

"The results are on the film with those guys, and the results are in the scores," Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "They've done an unbelievable job of holding teams from getting in the end zone."

The defense's work could be rewarded at the end of the season with a shot at the title and, maybe, a trip to New York and a Heisman Trophy for Te'o. Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson won the award in 1997, but he also returned kicks and played receiver on offense.

Lewis-Moore doesn't have a vote but, if he did, he knows where it would be going.

"The Heisman goes out to the best player in the country, and I honestly think Manti's the best player in the country," he said.

"I think people just kind of get caught up in offensive players winning the Heisman. If they give it to the best player, I think he is the best player in the country."

pittsports

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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