Mike Wilson: Entering this season, the question around the defense was can it be as good as it has been in the previous two years? The common answer from coaches and players alike was a confidence that it would be even better. The other element was it would be a faster defense, too, with the biggest upgrade in speed being at cornerback where sophomore Trae Waynes has replaced the graduated Johnny Adams.
The key for the Spartans is the leadership of five players who are in at least their third year starting. There is a chemistry and cohesiveness to the group, especially the linebackers with Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones.
The defensive scheme remains the same in previous years in the way MSU relies on its cornerbacks to be on an island and match up with the receivers. If those guys win the battle on top of how the front seven usually stops the run well, MSU is a successful team. Narduzzi is a mastermind of blitzes. His staple is the double A-gap blitz with the linebackers, but he will bring cornerbacks off the edge a couple times per game.
O'Malley: Conversely, the offense: 55 vs. Youngstown State, but the South Florida game was hard to watch when either team had the ball. Is Michigan State better offensively than the team that didn't dent Notre Dame last season? Is there more balance after relying on Le'Veon Bell last season?
Wilson: Through the first two games of the 2013 season, Michigan State appeared to be the same offensive team as last year – if not a worse one. They did put it together against Youngstown State, but there is a limited stock that can be placed on an FCS opponent. In that game, however, there was great balance with 270 passing yards and 277 rushing yards.
The run game is the focus for the Spartans as it always has been with Mark Dantonio. They lack the premier back like Bell this year, but use a combination of Jeremy Langford, Riley Bullough and Nick Hill to put it together. So you see a different MSU offense without Bell and it is a little bit more aerial-focused than last season's offense.
The biggest question mark, to me, is the receivers. As they go, Michigan State goes. The Spartans led the nation in drops last year, but made the tough catches last weekend against Youngstown State. If they can show up and make those plays again this weekend, it definitely is a better offense.
O'Malley: Tell us about (new QB) Connor Cook? The Irish defense has faced three straight mobile quarterbacks and even last fall would occasionally succumb to an opposing triggerman breaking containment and picking up some cheap first downs on middle scrambles. Can Cook hurt the Irish two ways as well?
Wilson: Cook is a mobile quarterback, but isn't a true dual-threat type. He is a big kid who can run around and gain yards either on scrambles or designed runs, so he can hurt opponents in that way. He only ran twice against Youngstown State as the coaches looked to get him reps throwing the ball, which he has been inconsistent with through his career thus far.
The mobility he brings is why the coaches have given him the QB1 role for now. He showed last weekend he can throw the ball downfield effectively, which he hadn't shown before. I think his confidence has to be high right now after his performance last weekend, with four touchdowns in basically a half.
Look for MSU to use Cook in some read-option packages and give him a chance to run, but if he can't throw the ball effectively, it will be a long day for him.
O'Malley: Notre Dame's secondary apparently left its tackling chops on a patch of dirt near the goal line at the Los Angeles Coliseum last November. Do the Spartans have perimeter targets that can make the Irish pay after the catch as both Michigan and Purdue did in recent weeks?
The struggle for the wide receivers at MSU last year was catching the ball, but also getting separation. The most electric wideout for the Spartans is sophomore MacGarrett Kings Jr. He brings speed and shiftiness to the position and has become the main guy in the past two weeks since entering the starting lineup.
MSU has to be able to continue the rhythm the passing game found last week with Cook and the receivers to have success, as the passing game was dead in the first two games of the season. If Cook is accurate, like last week, I think the wide receivers can present some problems for Notre Dame.
O'Malley: Michigan State has averaged 1.64 yards per carry over the last two seasons vs. the Irish. Can the Spartans line up and run with enough success to keep Notre Dame's front seven from dominating their side of scrimmage?
Wilson: I look more to the offensive line and how it performs against Notre Dame than the running backs. Two years ago, MSU lost two offensive linemen during the game in South Bend. Last year, MSU lost its starting right tackle in the week leading up playing ND. Both times, that group was manhandled by the big, physical Irish front seven.
There has been more consistency in the lineup thus far this season and there is more size than they had in the previous two years with more pure tackles in the mix instead of guards playing outside. How they hold the line of scrimmage and open up holes will be more key to the success of the running backs than the RBs themselves, I think.
When you look at the tailbacks, Jeremy Langford has been the top guy thus far even if there are three co-starters on the depth chart. He is the speed back they look to and use Riley Bullough, a big kid and former linebacker, to complement him. MSU likes to have that thunder-lightning mix and they provide that, assuming Bullough stays with the upward trajectory he had in the past couple games.
Since MSU builds off the run game, they need to do better against Notre Dame than they have recently in winning on the ground. I think it will be a struggle again but I look for MSU to get the ball outside more than up the middle and try to mix it up with option plays and jet sweeps to spread the defense out.