Forget the scene and setting. Regardless of how big the stage, there has been one consistent theme this season for Notre Dame — the playmaking presence of standout senior LB Manti Te’o.
When the game has been on the line and the defense has needed a big stand, Te’o has found a way to spark the nation’s best defense outside of Tuscaloosa, as he did once again in a 30-13 win on the road against Oklahoma with a clutch fourth-quarter interception.
Georgia LB Jarvis Jones, who fell one sack shy of matching his career-best four-sack performance against Florida last year, was equally ubiquitous in a 17-9 win over the previously unbeaten Gators, punching the ball out of the hands of Florida junior TE Jordan Reed from behind as Reed was approaching the goal line with barely two minutes to play to preserve the win.
In an era when defenders are not considered flashy enough to garner much attention as the nation’s most outstanding player, Te’o and Jones are stating a claim to be recognized.
From an NFL talent perspective, both have immediate impact qualities, with top-10-type physical traits.
“(Jarvis) Jones is a monster,” one NFL evaluator said. “I don’t know how you account for him. I love what he can do. Te’o is a more complete player — when you talk about creating interceptions, sacks, forcing fumbles, making tackles — he does it all.”
Te’o has been very comfortable captaining the middle of the Irish “D” since he arrived but is capable of playing any position in a 4-3 front or stacking the middle of a “30” front, transcending any scheme.
With rare ability to bend the edge, Jones is a rarer commodity as a pass-rushing force. He can wreak havoc on stunts as he did against Florida looping to the inside or bursting low to the ground and leveraging the corner the way only a select few in the NFL can do.
What few will contest — they are both difference makers who have elevated the play of their defenses and carried their teams this season, rising to the occasion when it has been needed most. Kansas State’s Collin Klein and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller have quarterbacked their teams to unblemished records, but when it comes creating clutch plays, Te’o and Jones have been as good as they come.
• In easily the most gruesome injury of the season, South Carolina junior RB Marcus Lattimore suffered what appeared to be a compound fracture in his right leg when Tennessee junior CB Eric Gordon very aggressively filled low in run support from the outside to cut his legs while Vols senior LB Herman Lathers was draped on Lattimore’s back after lassoing from the inside. Lattimore was forced out of the season in the seventh game last year, when he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee and surprisingly returned early this season. One of the most respected leaders on the team since he arrived as a true freshman and made an immediate impact, Lattimore is the type of player you root for. Hopefully, he will be able to return to the field in the future, with the severity of the injury appearing to be potentially career-altering.
• In a 39-36 loss to unranked Arizona, USC sophomore WR Marqise Lee racked up a Pac-12-record 345 receiving yards and scored two TDs on 16 catches, easily beating bracket coverage with sharp post patterns and twice outracing a scorched secondary across the field. Fellow teammate Robert Woods might receive more publicity, but Lee is the Trojans’ best receiver. He also piled up 123 yards on three kickoff returns.
• Had Clemson not let up on Wake Forest in a 42-13 victory, Clemson sophomore Sammy Watkins might have broken Troy Edwards’ NCAA record of 405 receiving yards in a game. Watkins (8-202-1) saw little action after racking up nearly 200 yards in the first half alone against a defense that did not have any combination of cover men capable of stopping him.
• Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert stands out most for his ability as a receiver. Against Oklahoma, he showed he was no slouch as a blocker, capably facing up Sooners S Tony Jefferson and springing junior RB Cierre Wood for a 62-yard TD. For a converted receiver labeled as being too finesse, Eifert made his presence felt as a blocker and is the nation’s top all-around TE talent.
• North Carolina redshirt sophomore RB Giovani Bernard produced the game-winning, 74-yard punt-return touchdown in the final seconds of a 43-35 win over arch-rival North Carolina State. Much credit goes to the excellent execution of the punt-return team, which for the second time this year, created a wall that allowed Bernard to return the ball up the sideline untouched. The true unsung hero in the contest was special-teams coordinator and OLB coach David Duggan, who has done an outstanding job coordinating the blocking. The biggest question facing Bernard, who has been dogged by injuries in his short career and is expected to depart early, is whether he’s tough enough to withstand an NFL pounding.