SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He played last Saturday with a level of ruthless resolve too often absent from Notre Dame defenders. To illustrate that no one is perfect, though, linebacker Manti Te'o referred to a facemask penalty he incurred against Stanford and his specific mistake on said play.
He looked at the official.
"I didn't know if the ref saw it, so I immediately looked at him," Te'o said, shaking his head. "I shouldn't have looked at him. Because right when I looked at him, he looked at me and he pulled his flag. I was like, 'Dang it, you got me."'
While the Irish need that ravenous play from Te'o, the theory is that they simply need more Te'os -- an infusion of premier talent throughout the defense, not just in the middle of it.
In fact, gauging by the always controversial recruiting rankings, Notre Dame might have enough talent on hand, and the players could absorb Te'o's attitude and improve by osmosis, as coach Brian Kelly hopes they will starting Saturday night at Boston College.
The Irish currently start more former four- and five-star recruits, per Rivals.com rankings, than each of the nation's top three defenses did in their final games last season -- including BCS title game contestants Alabama and Texas. So if ability isn't the heart of the matter, maybe heart is.
"What we're trying to do is talk about the difference between playing hard and playing with that will, that tenacity, that attitude of 'I'm going to just lay it on the line,' " Kelly said.
"That's what we're looking for from Manti. That's what he delivered. If that gets modeled by other players, we're just better because of it."
The Irish, ranked 103rd in total defense, must get better. It's a far easier proposition to adjust intangibles such as desire and aggression than it is to become more talented.
"I actually think you can just decide to be a better football player," safety Harrison Smith said. "For a lot of the guys, it's mostly mental. There is a point where you say, 'I am going to be a better football player,' and when that happens is when you start paying closer attention to all of the details."
Said linebacker Darius Fleming: "Everybody is going to play the way they play. But if we intensify our game like (Te'o) does week in and week out, we'll be a better team overall."
Te'o isn't the typical touchstone. He said he didn't think he did anything different last weekend. He hastens to say he's "not the only guy out there doing well," despite the 21 stops versus Stanford and his status as the nation's No. 1 tackler.
But he said he'll model intensity for the defense if that's what's required. And, contrary to theories about talent, Notre Dame might need exactly that.
"Everybody talks about how good a player he is -- he just sees himself as a guy on the grind, which is awesome," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "I anticipate his edge always to be sharp, and I think it's possible to raise the level of play of the players around you and infect the unit with positive energy. He's doing that."