MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The Notre Dame defense that showed up for Monday night's BCS Championship Game at Sun Life Stadium was unrecognizable compared to the one that led the nation in scoring defense during a 12-0 regular season. And no one seemed more unlike himself in Alabama's 42-14 romp than Irish linebacker Manti Te'o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
All season, Te'o was an inspirational force in the middle, leading Notre Dame in interceptions (seven) and tackles (103). But when Alabama running back Eddie Lacy ran right past Te'o on a 20-yard burst up the middle for the first touchdown and tight end Michael Williams was wide-open behind Te'o on a 3-yard pass for the second touchdown, the linebacker looked lost.
Te'o said coach Brian Kelly warned of the importance of the first two minutes of the game. "Obviously, it didn't pan out the way we thought it would go," Te'o said.
To their credit, the Irish never stopped fighting, but they simply weren't a physical match for the overpowering dominance of a Crimson Tide offensive line featuring three All-Americans. Alabama had 529 yards total offense, including 265 yards rushing.
"They're very big and athletic and strong," Te'o said. "We battled. They just did what Alabama does . . . I'm disappointed not that we lost but that we didn't represent our school, our families or our team the way we would have liked.
"It definitely [stinks], but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. I woluldn't trade this team for anything. I wish the season ended a different way, but this season and my career, I'm truly blessed to be a Notre Dame man."
Kelly said he felt good about the progress the program made back to the upper echelon of the game in his third season, and he added that motivating his players to continue their improvement should be easy after what they experienced against Alabama.
"We've got to get physically stronger," Kelly said. "You need to see what a championship team looks like, and they saw it. That team has won back-to-back titles. Measure yourself against that. Now they know what they need to do."
Kelly said he's looking forward to what he has coming back next season, especially redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson. But Te'o will be moving on.
Asked if he helped bring Notre Dame back, Te'o wouldn't go that far. "We're close," he said. "We're not there, or we'd be holding the crystal ball. But we're close."