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Manti Te'o overcomes tragic loss in family to lead Notre Dame past Michigan State

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

EAST LANSING, Mich. – On Tuesday evening Manti Te'o's grandmother passed away. Hours later, on Wednesday morning, he lost his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua to a battle with leukemia.

And here late on Saturday night, the Notre Dame linebacker stood in one corner of Spartan Stadium, a 20-3 victory over 10th-ranked Michigan State – as big as the Fighting Irish have delivered in years – in the books.

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Manti Te'o had 12 tackles in Notre Dame's 20-3 victory over Michigan State. (Getty Images)

Te'o's 12 tackles, two pass breakups, fumble recovery, sack, general domination and overwhelming leadership powered it. In the worst week of his life, he played perhaps his best game ever.

Everyone had just linked arms and sung the alma mater. A group of Fighting Irish fans were chanting his name. Te'o started toward the tunnel only to take a moment, point to the sky and emotionally mouth his remembrance and respect.

"That was for them," the senior from Hawaii said later. "For my girl and my grandmother … 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. And at the end of the day, families are forever."

On Wednesday, Te'o was forced to make a decision: stay or go. Fly back to Honolulu and be with those families or stay in the Midwest and be with the football one. When Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick asked if he needed help with travel arrangements, Te'o just shook his head.

"I want to be with my guys," he said.

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Soon he was walking out to practice, gathering his teammates and simply declaring, "I love you." Then it was time to get to work. It was at that point, perhaps, that this game was decided. It was at that point, perhaps, that the potential of this Notre Dame season came into focus.

Te'o isn't simply Notre Dame's best player and he isn't simply great enough to be a Heisman candidate despite playing on the defensive side of the ball. He's an unqualified leader of a program that's progressing by the moment, both pushed to greatness by him and pushing him to greatness right back.

No, Notre Dame isn't "back." No, it isn't a great team. No, it isn't a national title contender.

A great, national title contender would have beaten Michigan State 50-3 Saturday. There is still so far to go for Notre Dame. Yet it is obvious how far the Irish have also come.

In terms of talent. In terms of coaching. In terms of team – that tough-to-define, easy-to-see trait that winning clubs have.

Notre Dame is 3-0 after beating a top-10 team for the first time in seven years, on the road no less. "It's a big leap," coach Brian Kelly said. "It's a signature win."

Yet this isn't about Notre Dame waking up the echoes. This isn't about Irish luck. This isn't about overcoming odds great or small. That's all hype, the colorful lore of the team.

This is about constructing a program, building with a base, not thriving on pluck or fortune. There is plenty of young talent. There is obvious player development. There is strength on the offensive and defensive lines.

[Pat Forde: Stanford owns better football program than USC]

There is a program that is tight enough, supportive enough and special enough for Manti Te'o to turn down NFL millions and return for his senior season, all because there was still work to be done. Te'o believed he was both capable and obligated to do it.

Te'o anchors a defense that just brutalized the Spartans, who were forced into eight punts and never reached the red zone. First, workhorse LeVeon Bell was neutralized by Notre Dame's physical front seven. Then the short passing game, especially over the middle where Te'o patrols, was contained. Eventually there was nothing but an erratic deep passing attack to attempt.

"Frustrating," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

Kelly, on the other hand, could hardly contain his excitement. This is his third season and the program has been about starts and stops, one step forward, another back as he tries to build Notre Dame into a consistent contender in South Bend for the first time in nearly two decades.

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Notre Dame's victory over Michigan State is proof of how much its program has improved. (AP)

The schedule is too challenging, the team still too young in critical spots, for anyone to think they've arrived. Not with Michigan coming next week and games against Miami, Stanford, BYU and trips to Oklahoma and Southern California down the road.

Yet, this felt like a corner turned. Not because of the result, but how the result was achieved: physically pushing State around, protecting the ball and having playmakers make plays.

"This group, since January, has totally committed themselves to wanting to win each and every week," Kelly said. "It's very, very important to them. We're so committed to the process. We're right in the thick of that process of developing our football team."

Notre Dame has good players. It has a lot of them, too, and they're all over the field, on both sides of the ball. This isn't the all-offense Charlie Weis era. This is big Louis Nix and Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day and a slew of other hard, tough defenders like them, juniors, sophomores and freshmen all.

And then there is their leader, a senior linebacker who feels so supported by them, so comfortable in this reconstruction that whether it was the NFL's allure or the hurt of a tragic week, he couldn't imagine being anywhere other than playing alongside them.

"It's a great escape," Te'o said, marveling at the love of his teammates, coaches and university community.

This is the kind of people you need to win, men of accountability and awareness that lift everyone around them not just with sure tackles, but in every imaginable way, virtually every single day.

"He may be the perfect Notre Dame football player," Swarbrick said. "As good as they come on the field. As good as they come off the field. He is what we look for in student athletes."

This is Notre Dame. A good Notre Dame. A solid Notre Dame. Not great, not back, but not all hype either. Good enough for a person as considerable as Manti Te'o to believe this is where he belongs, working to build even more.

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