MSU game could answer questions for ND

Seven games into last season, Brian Kelly was presented with the kind of issue that Notre Dame probably now longs for.

The Irish coach looked around the locker room after a three-point win over BYU and saw a group that was far from ecstatic about improving to 7-0. He told players to ease up on themselves, reminding them that they would have to pull out tough games like that from time to time, that surviving and advancing was what it would sometimes take.

Flash forward to Saturday night, when Kelly emerged from a visiting locker room in Ross Ade Stadium, releasing a trail of commotion behind him as the doors had opened. The excitement continued with the doors closed, as the players' victory celebration bled through the walls while Kelly spoke to the media following a 31-24 escape at Purdue to improve to 2-1.

"Look," Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference, "any time you start the season like we do, with being on the road back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Purdue, you're going to be in for tough games."

Just maybe tougher than expected.

Few could express complete shock at the Irish losing to the Wolverines. A similar result against the Boilermakers would have been far less forgiving.

Notre Dame knew after the BCS title game that it needed to replace three starters from an elite defense. Then Danny Spond was forced into retirement during camp, adding one more obstacle for the unit to navigate.

The Irish knew they needed to develop fresh playmakers on offense. Then their most important piece, Everett Golson, got himself suspended from school for the fall -- and only after a spring season in which he was the center of attention.

"I'm looking at how our guys compete, how hard they compete," Kelly said. "We know there's going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That's going to take a little time. We don't get those opportunities to be in easy contests early on. We're getting tested right away."

Three games into the 2013 season have yielded little clarity for all. That can all change this weekend, when a Michigan State team that seems to finally know what it has enters Notre Dame Stadium for the fourth game of the season. It took three games for the Spartans to find offensive answers, but Connor Cook just broke out for the undefeated squad, throwing four first-half touchdown passes Saturday in a rout of FCS Youngstown State.

"Another great rivalry game," Kelly said. "It's a game that we've played for a number of years. It's always a great physical contest. That's how Coach (Mark) Dantonio prides himself on how they play. They play great defense. It should be another physical game."

Defensive dominance in the Irish's win at East Lansing last year proved to be the first national statement of many in a 2012 season for the ages. An uneven, three-turnover performance in an emotionally-charged win over Sparty two years ago encapsulated a 2011 campaign that had gotten off on the wrong foot in the two previous weeks.

On an upcoming Saturday slate that can generously be described as underwhelming, Michigan State-Notre Dame is the marquee event.

"Third week in a row for us in terms of playing a Big Ten opponent, back-to-back-to-back right out of the gates," Kelly said. "We ask our guys to do a lot here at Notre Dame."

And soon everyone may know just how up to the test this season's group really is.