Some “unofficial NCAA records” are more accurately described as “assumed NCAA records.” As in, Notre Dame set an assumed NCAA record when the Irish defense, led by senior linebacker Manti Te’o, intercepted five consecutive Wolverines pass attempts in a 13-6 win back in 2012, finishing an unbeaten September as part of an undefeated regular season.
In 150 years of college football history, no one had ever thought to track the most consecutive team pass attempts resulting in an interception, and when No. 11 Notre Dame picked off No. 18 Michigan five straight times, with two landing in Te’o’s hands, no anecdote arose to dispute the new Irish assumption.
The record has to be laid out in that particular fashion, as no single Wolverine, namely quarterback Denard Robinson, threw interceptions on five consecutive pass attempts. Instead, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke called for a halfback pass to begin the comical stretch. Perhaps it is editorializing to call it “comical,” but come on, an interception on five consecutive pass attempts? There is an element of humor to it.
“Defensively, what can I say,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Six turnovers. Limited who we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players (Robinson) in the country to no touchdowns. Just an incredible performance by our defense.”
That performance began with a goal-line interception from Nicky Baratti, prompted by Te’o getting into the backfield on a running-back pass. Notre Dame gained only 18 yards following the pick before giving the ball right back to Robinson. Three plays later, he threw a pass so directly to Te’o, it prompted NBC analyst Mike Mayock to bluntly say, “I really have no idea why Denard Robinson throws this football.” On a personal note, any above worries about editorializing dissipated after working in that bit from Mayock.
Te’o’s 28-yard interception return to the red zone set up an Irish field goal and a 3-0 lead. The Wolverines’ next play? Te’o hit Robinson as he threw, resulting in a Bennett Jackson interception. The next possession, Te’o again, courtesy of a Zeke Motta pass breakup.
“I think the key to stopping such a dynamic player like Denard is everybody has to get to him,” Te’o said. “Everybody has to get to the ball. You have to really emphasize 11 guys to the ball and I think our coaches have done a great job in stressing the importance of everybody getting the ball.”
The Irish turned that gift into a 48-yard touchdown drive culminating with the most-unexpected of play calls, a Tommy Rees quarterback draw. Te’o’s two picks had staked Notre Dame to a 10-0 lead, enough of a margin in a sloppy game that featured a total of eight turnovers, including KeiVarae Russell’s interception on the following possession, ending the first half, to cap the five straight disastrous Michigan passes.
Perennially a September Heisman candidate, Robinson finished with 138 passing yards and 90 rushing yards, a decent showing if not for those five pesky turnovers.
“I thought both football teams played awfully hard,” Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke said. “I think one played better when it came to execution and taking care of the football.”
“Better” may have been a low bar to clear, but the Irish hardly lept over it. Rees had to relieve freshman Everett Golson after two early interceptions. His 8-of-11 passing for 115 yards was far from even workmanlike, but it was enough once he completed a 38-yard pass to Tyler Eifert in the closing minutes to seal the game, the tight end’s only catch of the evening. Michigan actually outgained Notre Dame by 60 yards, neither team breaking 300 total yards.
“I think we’re fairly comfortable if we need Tommy to come in and handle some of the offense for us, if we feel like it’s necessary, we will,” Kelly said. “He’s a great asset to have if you need him to close out a game, and we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games any way possible.”
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The game was very much marked by those turnovers, by those five picks, by Te’o.
Time has marred the emotions of that week, but this was the first home game after Te’o’s long-distance girlfriend had apparently died. Yes, we know what we know now, but at the time, the Irish community was rallying around the Hawaiian. Thousands of leis hung around students’ necks. The previous night’s pep rally had included an emotional moment of the entire crowd holding up a hand, representing Te’o’s No. 5, for an extended period while he battled back tears. Each Saturday big play elicited more distinct and more emotional releases from the leader of the team, the man that became the face of a 12-0 season.
“Man, I said it before. Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn’t know why,” Te’o said. “It’s starting to unveil itself why, why I felt that I was told to come here. I can’t thank my team enough. I can’t thank the students and just the fan base around the world, Notre Dame and non-Notre Dame fans. They’ve just been great. It’s very humbling for me and my family.”
It was a win against Michigan — “It’s a great feeling any time you can beat Michigan,” as Rees said — and it was a top-20 matchup, but the performance and emotion from Te’o were what turned that evening into a memorable one. The rest of it was forgettable at worst (neither team averaged even 5 yards per play) and comical at best. It would be disingenuous to describe it as anything else.
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