SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The leis came from local businessmen and student groups. One Notre Dame alum even bought a batch and Fed Exed them to his old dorm. They were layered atop North Face jackets, hoodies and scarves. On the first night of chilly football weather at Notre Dame Stadium, the campus paid a poignant tribute to Manti Te'o, the star Irish linebacker from Hawaii.
One week after Te'o played remarkably well under the most depressing of circumstances -- the death of his girlfriend and grandmother within 24-hour span before the Irish's game against Michigan State -- the Notre Dame community donned tens of thousands of leis to honor his resiliency. Te'o responded with a virtuoso performance in the No. 11 Irish's 13-6 victory over No. 18 Michigan, as he intercepted two Denard Robinson passes and helped force two others with his disruptive pressure in the backfield.
"I love this school," Te'o said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. That lei for me represents family. It doesn't represent me. It represents everyone sticking together and everybody realizing what's important in life. That's families sticking together."
Notre Dame is 4-0 for the first time since 2002 and Te'o has emerged as the indelible face of this Irish uprising. Yes, the team has a simmering quarterback controversy, a grueling schedule and a lack of explosive playmakers. And yes, Notre Dame is still a long way from being a national title contender, so don't get overly excited about waking echoes and declaring the Irish are "back."
"That's garbage," Irish tailback Theo Riddick said of the white noise. "That's irrelevant."
But with a bye week ahead and a trip into the AP Poll top 10 forthcoming, it's hard not to imagine the possibilities. If Notre Dame can get by Miami, it would be undefeated when Stanford comes to South Bend on October 13.
"It's a group that understands they've got an opportunity to do something really big," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
Forget history for a moment. Forget Tony Rice, Joe Montana, Rocket Ismail and George Gipp. This Irish resurgence has come from the defensive side of the ball. Notre Dame forced six turnovers Saturday, including interceptions on five straight passes. At that point, Tom Brady must have thrown his remote control through his television.
After getting torched by Robinson for two consecutive years, the Irish stymied, punished and befuddled the Michigan quarterback. It got so bad that, at one point, Hoke was asked if he'd consider pulling Robinson. He firmly said no. Robinson called it "the worst game of my career."
Te'o, ever deflecting credit, went out of his way to give recognition to walk-on receiver Nick Fitzpatrick's job mimicking Robinson on the scout team this week. The real Robinson pointed the finger directly at himself.
"I'm disappointed in myself," Robinson said. "The 22 years I've been living, this is the most disappointed I've been in myself."
Te'o looked like the maestro all night, embracing the sold-out crowd by exhorting them for more noise. He had plenty of help, as defensive end Stephon Tuitt was disruptive, linebacker Prince Shembo harassed Robinson and cornerback Bennett Jackson led the Irish with a team-high nine tackles in addition to an interception and a fumble recovery. But all eyes were on Te'o, and a quick anecdote shows why he's become such an endearing figure here. It may also explain his recent interception binge.
Te'o befriended Trey Sedlack, the eight-year old son of Robert Sedlack, one of Te'o's graphic design professors. With his unique exuberance, Te'o told Trey that he was envious of the two pick-sixes that Trey returned in his flag football league last season. (Te'o entered this season without so much as an interception.) The next time Te'o saw Trey in an academic building on campus, he screamed, "Trey Sedlack you're my hero."
Trey apparently believed him. He signed a football for Te'o and wrote he hoped Te'o would get a pick-six. So far no luck, but Te'o has three interceptions so far this year. He said he touches the football in his locker before every Notre Dame home game.
"I don't know what it is," Te'o said with a smile in a quiet moment after the game. "But ever since I've got that ball I've gotten three picks. I haven't got a pick-six yet, I still have to get one so I can go up to Trey and tell him I have one."
As Notre Dame ran out the clock following a 38-yard completion from backup Tommy Rees to tight end Tyler Eifert and some tough running by back Theo Riddick, the Irish celebrated their first 4-0 start in a decade. On the opposite sideline, Michigan's woes added to a dismal day for the Big Ten.
Is there something that's opposite of an exclamation point? That's what Saturday was for the league with big television money and a prosperous cable station. The results of the day -- with Iowa losing to Central Michigan, Illinois falling to Louisiana Tech and Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State surviving scares from lower-tier programs -- likely mean the Big Ten will have no significant part in the national college football conversation for the rest of the season.
The Wolverines piled on that ineptitude, with their day unraveling after a halfback toss resulted in an interception in the end zone late in the first quarter. That call was the worst offensive moment in a day that was littered with mistakes. Michigan went scoreless in its first three trips to the red zone.
Michigan's six turnovers gives Notre Dame a turnover margin of plus-nine through four games in 2012.
"My wife even talks to me when I'm plus nine, which didn't happen much last year," Kelly said with a smile.
The talk in South Bend will center on the quarterback situation leading into the Irish's matchup with Miami at Soldier Field in two weeks. Kelly pulled redshirt freshman starter Everett Golson late in the second quarter after throwing two interceptions, and Rees came in, completed 8-of-11 passes, didn't turn the ball over and ran for the game's only touchdown. Kelly insisted after the game that Golson is still the starter, but it's becoming more apparent that Rees might fit this defensive-minded Irish team better.
"The defense is such that we want to limit turnovers," Kelly said. "And early on we turned the ball over and ultimately that's why we made the change at quarterback."
No matter what happens under center, this much is clear: The Irish defense delivered a definitive knockout blow. They are 4-0 with a distinct identity, a clear superstar and a season that sparkles with promise.
And coming off two emotional weeks, Te'o will return home to Hawaii after playing the most exhilarating football of his career. On a chilly Saturday in South Bend, Te'o delivered a memorable performance to match the Notre Dame fans' touching tribute.