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Senior Day victory would mean a lot to Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o his senior classmates will be playing their last game Saturday Notre Dame Stadium. | Winslow

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his senior classmates will be playing their last game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. | Winslow Townson~AP

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The facts: 2:30, Ch. 5, 890-AM.

Updated: December 19, 2012 1:30PM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Already feeling out of place — a Hawaiian kid shivering in the snow in northern Indiana — and watching a mediocre Notre Dame team limp to the finish line of another season with a one-point loss to Syracuse on Senior Day four years ago, it would have been understandable if high school senior Manti Te’o had written off the Irish completely.

But something about the way Notre Dame players reacted to the loss resonated with Te’o, who always has been mature beyond his years.

‘‘I just felt how sad it was,’’ Te’o recalled. ‘‘I think the worst part of that was to see the pain in the players’ eyes as they were crying, leaving the stadium. Not because they lost, but because that was their last experience playing under the dome.’’

Four years later, Te’o — who cited the chance to experience his own Senior Day as a big reason for his decision to spurn the NFL and return to South Bend after last season — will run out of the tunnel for the last time Saturday, with about 40 friends and family in the stadium, as the Irish host Wake Forest.

Notre Dame has had a troubling trend of sluggish efforts at home this season. But the Irish expect the Senior Day emotions to carry them as they continue to chase a perfect season and a national title.

‘‘You never want to send your seniors out with a loss,’’ said senior receiver Robby Toma, Te’o’s best friend and high school teammate. ‘‘It’s going to be our last time in that stadium together with this team. We’re going to play with a lot of emotion, but it’ll be controlled emotion.’’

The fifth-year seniors — players such as Kapron Lewis-Moore, John Goodman, Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr. — came to Notre Dame in the wake of the 2007 debacle, a three-victory season that was the Irish’s worst in 44 years. The next class — players such as Te’o, Toma, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, Zack Martin and Zeke Motta — endured three middling campaigns before a stunning rise to the top of the rankings this season. The miseries of seasons past have made this soaring swan song sweeter.

‘‘The one thing that keeps me going is you can’t really forget where you came from,’’ Lewis-Moore said. ‘‘Thinking about those lows when we first got here and just seeing this thing grow, seeing this program grow, it’s just something amazing.’’

A slip-up against Wake Forest, which led at halftime last season before two third-quarter touchdowns gave Notre Dame a 24-17 victory, would end the Irish’s championship dreams before they even finish the regular season next week at USC.

The Demon Deacons are 5-5, and their passing defense and rushing offense are among the worst in the country. But they have forced six fumbles in their last five games, and Notre Dame has turned the ball over five times in the last two weeks.

So Irish coach Brian Kelly has been beating the same drum he has all season, talking about focus, preparation and not looking past anybody — no matter what the emotions of the day are like.

‘‘There is a lot of work to do,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘Yes, it is your last home game, but we’ve got a lot in front of us. What you’ll remember most is whether you win the game, not that it was your last home game.’’

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