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Gastelum: Irish play like more than a team (Sept. 17)

Andrew Gastelum | Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ohana. It means family.

This Notre Dame football team is a family. Brian Kelly said it. Cierre Wood said it. John Goodman said it. Prince Shembo said it. Louis Nix said it. Robby Toma said it.

But Manti Te’o felt it.

The same man whose broad shoulders have carried this team for years was lifted Saturday by his teammates, his family. In Te’o, they found genuine inspiration. In his teammates, Te’o found unwavering support.

Just days after he lost both his grandmother and girlfriend, there was Te’o in East Lansing, Mich., doing the thing he knew best while showing the utmost mental fortitude – and leadership that goes far beyond the “C” on his jersey.

But it was his family on the field that made everything come together.

How else do the Irish not give up a touchdown to a team that had won its last 15 home games? How else do the Irish beat a top-10 team for the first time in its last 10 tries? How else do the Irish start 3-0 for the first time since 2002?

Families sacrifice, and that was the only way the Irish could win against a top-10 team.

Tyler Eifert sacrificed, returning from a mild concussion sustained against Purdue to play tough minutes and not even show up on the stat sheet. The future first-round pick totaled zero catches, yet came up huge when it came to run blocking and providing maximum protection for Everett Golson against William Gholston and the ferocious Spartan defense.

The running game sacrificed, including Cierre Wood in his first game since returning from suspension. After 293 rushing yards against Navy in the season opener, the rushing attack has taken a backseat to the aerial attack so that Golson can come into his own as a quarterback and the offense can become more balanced.

The offensive line gave up one sack and paved the way for 122 rushing yards while receiving none of the credit a week after being eaten alive by Purdue’s front seven.

Families come together when they are needed most, and that was the only way the Irish could win against a top-10 team.

Veteran receivers stepped up, as Toma led the receivers with five receptions and 58 yards while Goodman came down with a spectacular one-handed, 36-yard touchdown grab.

Ben Turk and the special teams unit consistently pinned the Spartans deep in their own half with an average field position on the Michigan State 20-yard line.

But the biggest show of unity was when Te’o took the field, backed by his defensive family and playing the most inspired football of his distinguished career. The same secondary that was seen as a defensive liability consistently broke up passes, holding Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell to 4-for-15 passing in the fourth quarter.

That same unit – led by Te’o’s 12 tackles – held Heisman candidate Le’Veon Bell to 77 yards, compared to Bell’s 140 yards-per-game average. Bell didn’t even get a carry in the fourth quarter and the Spartans never set foot in the red zone. Never.

When the Irish held a late lead, the family stepped up and kept grinding. Michigan State crossed midfield just once, before immediately being pushed back by a holding penalty.

When injuries forced the next man in, the family didn’t miss a step. In fact, they became closer, enthused by their sacrifice and unity. Brian Kelly’s next-man-in philosophy assumes family, but on Saturday the Irish put it on full display and that’s the something.

“At the end of the day, families are forever,” Te’o said.

Without a doubt, this ohana is.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.