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Irish update: Jan. 3

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, January 3, 2013

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Manti Te’o had a feeling in June.

After a tough summer conditioning workout, the Irish were faced with an optional weight-lifting session. Everyone attended.

“Nobody asked anyone. Nobody forced anyone. The leaders went and the rest followed,” Te’o said.

That was when the senior linebacker knew the No. 1 Irish were different from the previous teams but it wasn’t until a 22-13 late-season win over rival USC that Notre Dame clinched a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.

“Obviously, that moment wasn’t a sign that said ‘Man, we’re going to make it to the national championship,” Te’o said.

Now, the Irish (12-0) are just four days away from a national title showdown with SEC powerhouse No. 2 Alabama at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., despite entering the season unranked.

Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, much like coach Brian Kelly, said Notre Dame has not focused on making sure the Irish are “back.”

“We really don’t operate in a big-picture matter,” Diaco said. “We never really had this crescendo where we sit down and think like that. We really don’t talk like that.

“We’re just interested in having the very best defense we can have on that particular day. When you focus that kind of energy and that kind of intense drilled down focus on the job, we really don’t spend that much time thinking about things like that.”

For individual members of the Irish defense, however, different games tell the story of the 2012 season.

Irish graduate student defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said it was after a 20-3 win at then-No. 10 Michigan State when he knew the defense was special. Notre Dame held Michigan State and running back Le’Veon Bell to 50 total rushing yards.

“After the game, we were kind of looking at each other and like ‘We’re an okay team,’” Lewis-Moore said.

Senior safety Zeke Motta pointed to the Pittsburgh game as a turning point in the season. Notre Dame survived in three overtimes to top the Panthers 29-26.

“When they missed that field goal, you knew something special was bound to happen,” Motta said. “I wouldn’t say it was luck but certainly God had a hand in that.”

 

Te’o stepping up his game

After returning from an awards circuit that stretched from New York to California, Heisman Trophy runner-up Te’o has reassumed his role on the Irish defense as its leader.

Diaco said Te’o has practiced harder than he has all season long since the awards circuit.

“He, himself, has raised his game even just as early as last week leading up to travel to South Florida,” Diaco said.

Te’o said the success the Irish have on game day is determined by their preparation in the lead-up to the contest.

“If I don’t prepare myself the best I can throughout the week, I won’t be ready,” Te’o said. “It’s a day-to-day process. If you want to be successful on Monday, you have to be better on Wednesday and on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday will hopefully take care of itself.”

 

‘Bama backs pose problems

The Crimson Tide bring with them a running back tandem that has combined for more than 2,200 yards this season.

Junior running back Eddie Lacy has been the main back for Alabama but freshman T.J. Yeldon also gets a large amount of carries. Lacy has 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns while Yeldon has 1,021 and 11 touchdowns.

“Alabama’s running backs are tremendous,” Lewis-Moore said. “Yeldon is the jump-cut runner, really quick and Lacy is that guy that’s really not going to hit you with a couple moves.”

Alabama has been successful in the red zone thanks, in part, to its strong running game. They have scored touchdowns on 72 percent of trips inside the 20.

“It all stems from them being a very dominant running team,” sophomore safety Matthias Farley said. “They have a great offensive line and talented backs behind them. If they do need to throw in the red zone, they’re more than capable of doing that as well.

“They can run the ball all the way to the red zone and once they get there, they’re not going to stop.”

 

Warming up to South Florida

The Irish are not only preparing for Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) but also for the South Florida climate. When they left South Bend on Wednesday, snow was on the ground and the temperatures in the 20s. Temperatures are in the 70s in South Florida.

“Going out there and practicing in the heat, getting used to this climate, I think that’s going to be good for us,” Lewis-Moore said.

Junior linebacker Danny Spond said practicing outdoors in the heat will be a nice change of pace for the Irish.

“Indoors can get a little muggy,” Spond said. “We’re looking forward to getting some fresh air, run around and seeing some blue sky for a while. It’s been a long time being inside just practicing.”

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu