2. OLB/DE #55 Prince Shembo: Opened the season with five quarterback hurries vs. Temple; was quiet but with a major coverage mistake vs. the Wolverines thereafter, and played well though a bit under-the-radar last week in West Lafayette. Shembo was one of Notre Dame's 3-4 best players last September and starred vs. the Spartans (9 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 QB pressures, a cosmetic interception), but he's not made that type of a statistical impact since a mid-November game at Boston College in which he dominated with three sacks and four tackles for loss. I had Shembo as one of five sure things for the Irish entering the 2013 season -- he's not quite at that level but this seems like the 6'2" 258-pound hybrid's type of game.
3. Inside Linebacker #44 Carlo Calabrese: Defenses target the 6'1" 255-pounder in coverage, and Michigan State will surely look to do so Saturday, but if the Spartans want to run downhill, and if they hammer away with 35-40 rushing attempts, Calabrese will be the game's central figure. Born 20 years too late, Calabrese is a downhill, gap-filling inside linebacker that would have made former Michigan State head man George Perles proud. He'll come off the field in obvious passing situations, but look for quarterback Connor Cook to target him with crossing routes and down the seam on first down.
4. Safety #41 Matthias Farley: A season-saver last year after stepping in for injured safety Jamoris Slaughter (during the Michigan State game, coincidentally), Farley has inexplicably struggled as a tackler this season after showing well in that regard as a first-time defender last fall. Of Michigan's five most damaging plays, Farley had a hand in three: missing a tackle on a 64-yard touchdown, whiffing in space on what would have been a crucial third-down stop, and committing end zone pass interference on third down thereafter. He then missed two tackles that led to Purdue scores last week.
At his best, Farley plays his zone well and is a top-notch goal line defender off the edge. He''s not shown either skill set since the Irish broke USC's back in the Coliseum last Thanksgiving weekend. One of the brightest players on the team, Farley's future starting spot could be in jeopardy if his tackling doesn't improve vs. the Spartans.
5. DE/OLB/ILB #11 Ishaq Williams: The 6'5" 255-pound junior doesn't start, but he finishes. That is, if Michigan State faces third down situations of three yards or more, they're likely to encounter Williams, either as a defensive end or inside linebacker in the Irish nickel/dime packages, or as a boundary linebacker in relief of Shembo in the team's shifting 3-4/4-3 front. Not the most physical player in season's past, Saturday will be a test for Williams and his purported improvement at securing the edge. If Michigan State consistently faces 3rd and long, Williams will be one of four pass rushers bringing pressure on Connor Cook.