#1- RB: Cierre Wood (6'0" 215 Sr.) Suspended for the season's first two games for a violation of team rules, Wood returns for Saturday's contest in a backup role to classmate Theo Riddick. Wood was Notre Dame's top offensive player in last year's victory over the Spartans, rushing for two scores and 65 yards in the first half. Wood found less room to roam as the game progressed, a reality Saturday's starter Riddick will likely face as the Spartans defense adjusts and settles in. Wood then becomes the X-factor: the team's best 'back and second-best offensive player with something to prove in a hostile environment vs. a rival, peer squad.
#2- TE/WR: Tyler Eifert (6'6" 251 Sr.) The dual-position listing is relevant in that Spartans cornerbacks Johhny Adams and Darqueze Denard will likely contend with Eifert more than Michigan State's 'backers and safeties. Eifert has spent the majority of Notre Dame's first two games split wide, both to the boundary and field side, while also occasionally lining up in the slot. His play as an in-line tight end has been limited thanks to the development of 2011 linebacker Troy Niklas, a 6'7" 260-pound athlete who's beaten Notre Dame's first two foes for large gains while drawing a key interference call downfield on the game-winning drive vs. Purdue.
Eifert was concussed midway through the third quarter last week and the Irish offense was stymied thereafter. His return is essential as he's the only Irish player who presents a physical mismatch to the Spartans talented defense.
#3- LT: Zack Martin (6'4" 304 Sr.) There aren't many underrated senior Domers, but Martin entered the season among that rare group; that is until he put forth the only clunker of his three-year starting career against the Boilers last Saturday. Martin committed two personal fouls, was beaten off the edge at times by sophomore Ryan Reynolds, and struggled constantly for the first time in the Kelly era (Martin was a freshman withheld from action by Charlie Weis). Martin's ability to seek and secure opposing linebackers and safeties at the second level keys the Irish running game (and screen game) when its rolling -- Saturday the senior captain must contend with an experienced back seven in space, and can't afford another poor outing.
#4 Slot Receiver: Robby Toma (5'9 185 Sr.)
Notre Dame has more talented receivers (DaVaris Daniels), more productive receivers (T.J. Jones) and certainly more physically imposing bodies on the outside (Daniel Smith), but no player can beat a defense for a clutch catch better than the diminutive, confident Toma. Quicker than fast (as in, very quick and not fast), Toma has the best hands on the team outside of Eifert, and has the uncanny knack for finding holes in zones, moving the chains, and late-game catches.
Often silent for three quarters, Toma has produced drive-sustaining grabs in late wins vs. Pittsburgh (2011) and Purdue (2012) and took out two defenders to pave the way for a teammate's touchdown late vs. Michigan (a 2011 defeat). Toma won't come close to dominating Saturday's game, but he's the player to watch if its late and close.
#5 Right Guard: Mike Golic, Jr. (6'3" 300 5th-year) Right tackle Christian Lombard will make his third career start Saturday night, and charged with ample matchups against All-America defensive end William Gholston, Lombard will likely struggle. What will determine if the Irish are successful offensively though is the performance of Golic, who'll be key in double-team efforts vs. Gholston, but also must perform markedly better than in Saturday's 20-17 Irish victory over the Boilermakers during which Golic was abused by Purdue defensive tackles Kawaan Short and Bruce Gaston.
Saturday will be Golic's third career start and guard and seventh consecutive start overall (he started at center late last season in place of injured classmate Braxston Cave). Golic performed well in relief of Cave vs. Wake Forest last fall, but struggled against Maryland, Boston College and Stanford. He rebounded for the best game of his career vs. Navy two weeks ago, but took a major step back against the Boilers stout interior.
His performance, perhaps more than any other on the Irish offense outside of its quarterback, will determine Saturday's point production for the visitors.