Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o closed out his career as the most decorated player in college football history.
The senior won the Lott Trophy, as well as the Maxwell Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Butkus Award, the Lombardi Award, and the Walter Camp Award. He placed second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, tying Hugh Green for the highest-ever finish by a pure defender.
But in his team’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2013 BCS title game, he wasn’t even the best linebacker on the field, much less the best player.
Where was Te’o?
That’s the question that reverberated around social media as the Crimson Tide ripped through the guts of the Irish defense time after time on Monday night. While Alabama running backs Eddie Lacy (140 rushing yards) and T.J. Yeldon (108 yards) had a field day getting to the second level, the normally dependable Te’o missed several tackles (he had only two missed tackles all year coming in) and found himself out of position on numerous occasions.
The play that set the tone for Te’o's performance came on Alabama’s opening drive. On a second-and-3 from the Notre Dame 20-yard line, Lacy took a deep handoff straight up the middle. The Irish front stalemated the Tide line as it fired off the ball, but a crease opened for Lacy between the center and left guard. Te’o was indecisive and late in covering the hole, attempting a diving tackle of Lacy even as right guard Anthony Steen hindered him a little from a prone position. But Te’o couldn’t stop Lacy, who rumbled for the Tide’s first touchdown of the night.
Even Te’o's pass defense, his strong suit, was rusty. He bit on a play fake that resulted in Alabama’s second touchdown, a 3-yard scoring pass from AJ McCarron to tight end Michael Williams.
He would go on to finish with 10 tackles, but only three of them were unassisted. He didn’t make any plays behind the line of scrimmage, didn’t deflect a pass and didn’t force a fumble. The linebacker known for making plays didn’t make one the entire game. Most of Te’o's tackles were of the “jump on the pile” variety. Meanwhile, Alabama ran the ball 45 times for 265 yards, an average of 5.9 yards.
Te’o wasn’t just a victim of Alabama’s harsh, down-hill style. He was also a victim of unrealistic expectations. Those who touted him during the season — and those who continue to tout him as the best linebacker prospect in however-many years — have tended to gloss over some of the deficiencies in his game. They focus on his overall tackle number (103) and remarkable interception total (7), but they miss the flaws — namely his lack of physicality and his difficulty in taking on and getting off blocks.
This is not to say that Te’o isn’t a great player; he is. But he’s not a perfect player by any stretch of the imagination. Alabama recognized that and exploited his weaknesses to great effect.
Te’o might have been the heart of the Irish defense this season, but that heart was ripped out by the Crimson Tide during this epic blowout.