Wilson: It seemed like last year in East Lansing a big part of Notre Dame's success came from getting Everett Golson out of the pocket and finding receivers downfield. With Golson not in the picture right now, what does Tommy Rees bring to the table that could give the Michigan State defense problems?
O'Malley:Rees's early season grade conducting the offense would be an A+, but that's no surprise. He's always been a student of the game and his strength is recognizing what the defense is doing and getting the offense into the right play in Kelly's no-huddle attack. But Rees' athletic limitations usually doomed his pre-snap judgments. His biggest improvement in 2013 has been snap to whistle where he's shown better arm strength and confidence en route to three straight 300-yard games and an array of middle-distance throws he rarely completed in the past. With the exception of Michigan, Rees has historically struggled vs. quality defenses, and Saturday's test vs. the Spartans will be one of the three toughest of his career (and the Irish lost the other two).
Wilson: The Irish lost their top running backs from a year ago and the Michigan State defense is particularly good against the run. What has the Irish rushing attack been able to do early this season and who is the main guy in the backfield now?
O'Malley:There's no main guy, and it's a point of contention for Irish fans. It's not, however, for Brian Kelly, who maintains the modern game needs multiple 'backs to do the jobs necessary as receivers, pass protectors, and runners. Former USC transfer Amir Carlisle is the quickest, has the best hands, and has shown to be the best in blitz pickup, but he had a costly fumble late last week vs. Purdue. Cam McDaniel is the fan favorite and the best north-south runner on the team, but he's remarkably small for a physical runner and thus seems better suited to 12-15 carries than a full load.
George Atkinson returns from last year's squad. He led the team with 7.1 yards per carry and score five touchdowns but he's more of a home run hitter than a guy you can rely on for 10+ carries vs. a defense as stout as State's. (Atkinson scored on a kick return touchdown vs. MSU in 2011).
Notre Dame needs to run to win Saturday, but it can't beat the Spartans relying on its ground game. It's either balance (preferably) or Rees will have to fire 40 passes, a number that usually signifies defeat in the Kelly era.
Wilson: Notre Dame has a giant front seven, obviously led by DT Louis Nix. That group lived in the backfield last year against a struggling Michigan State offensive line. With the Michigan State offense seemingly starting to put it together, how do you expect that group to impact the game come Saturday?
O'Malley:The front plus Manti Te'o is the reason Notre Dame made it to the BCS Championship game last year. Period. Te'o is gone and so are two key members of what was a six-deep defensive line rotation. Tuitt has added what many consider bad weight, the result of surgery for a sports hernia in the winter, and though Sheldon Day has been very good as a true sophomore starter, he was arguably a bigger weapon as a backup last season because he and his fellow reserves kept the starters fresh. (Day is questionable with a high ankle sprain.)
For Notre Dame to win, they'll need to limit Michigan State to 20-23 points or fewer (the Kelly-era Irish rarely score more than two touchdowns vs. quality defenses), and for that to happen, the defensive line -- still strong -- will have to play its best game of the season. They've relied too much on blitz pressure to bother passers this season while last fall they dominated with a four-man rush and seven dropping into layered coverage. I don't expect Michigan State to run well Saturday, but I do think they can beat the Irish secondary, a unit that's tackled poorly and committed untimely penalties this season.
Wilson: DaVaris Daniels was a killer against Purdue this past weekend and really broke that game open. Between him and T.J. Jones, there is a solid pair of receivers to match up with the MSU cornerbacks – which usually are left on an island. How do those two complement each other and how do you see that matchup of the WRs against the MSU CBs unfolding?
O'Malley: Unfortunately, Daniels' breakout game means he no longer represents a rarity in college football: a vastly underrated, and under-the-radar Notre Dame skill position player. Jones is the more polished of the two but Daniels is a better athlete and likely capable of beating any press coverage (as he did during the BCS Championship loss). The pair brings competitiveness to the position, a trait that will serve them well vs. Dennard and Waynes, but it's up to Rees to allow them to win these matchups.
First-down passing success will be crucial for the Irish offense because while Daniels, Jones, and Rees are a better trio than most would have forecasted entering Week Four, they're not at the level of former Irish and current pros such as Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, a pair capable of winning any battle for the ball in the air on any throw.
Wilson: Heading into a two-year break for the first time since the mid-1990's, this game seems to have a little bit extra to it, at least on the MSU end. Do you think the fact these two teams won't play again until 2016 changes the dynamic and adds even more intensity to what already is a healthy rivalry game.
O'Malley: Kelly said it best: He doesn't need to explain to the Irish what they're about to encounter in Michigan State -- the Irish are well-aware of and respectful of Michigan State's strength as a physical program. (Kelly later noted they might as well "play the game in the parking lot" because of how he expects the contest to unfold).
Unless turnovers create a short field, this rivalry game will come down to who executes in the fourth quarter, and if one team is able to hit a big play over the course of 60 minutes.
From the players' perspective, I doubt anyone on the roster knows the team's don't play again next year. They've been inundated with so much talk about the Michigan series ending that they're likely only concerned about what they know from their own history in this series: that it'll be hit or be hit Saturday afternoon in South Bend.