Entering his junior season, weakside end Frank Clark mentioned a few names that he looked up to as role models, hopeful he would enter the conversation with former All-Americans LaMarr Woodley and Brandon Graham with a dominant year in which he became just the ninth Wolverine in school history with 10 or more sacks.
However, after three games, without a quarterback takedown to his name, Clark found himself under the spotlight, and not the kind players covet. Fans and reporters questioned whether the 6-2, 273-pounder would ever live up to his potential, suggesting he was more hype than reality.
On Saturday, proving he would not shrink in the face of overwhelming scrutiny, Clark finally delivered.
The junior was one of five Wolverine defenders to contribute to a sack, recording two in a single game for the first time in his career.
"It's just playing my assignment," he said, practicing humility even after, arguably, his greatest career performance. "We're coached to stick to our job. My job is to contain. I'm rushing the passer and trying to contain at the same time. You've got to make some plays."
The Maize and Blue finished with four total sacks, tying their season-best mark from opening weekend against Central Michigan. They also had eight total tackles for loss and two more quarterback hurries.
"Defensively for four quarters I thought we played awfully hard, played productive, did a nice job," head coach Brady Hoke said.
Clark was the ringleader but almost every defender among the front seven got in on the action in some fashion.
Junior linebacker Brennen Beyer and sophomore linebacker Joe Bolden each had a stop behind the line of scrimmage, junior linebacker Desmond Morgan had a key interception, while defensive linemen Jibreel Black, Mario Ojemudia and Chris Wormley all recorded a tackle for loss. U-M's defensive backs - junior Ray Taylor and redshirt sophomore Blake Countess - also notched TFL.
"We all just try to build off each other's energy," Morgan said. "We preached all game long, we need to create some momentum for our offense. Get a turnover, make some big plays on defense. That's something we especially took into the second half.
"We just tried to fly around out there."
Michigan's pass rush, especially, was a hot topic of debate in the days leading up to the game. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattision addressed the issue before he was even prompted by the media during his weekly press conference, and Hoke repeatedly said creating pressure was a point of emphasis for the Wolverines.
The Maize and Blue were embarrassed by their lack of success against Notre Dame (one sack) and Akron (zero sacks), and vowed to get back on track against the Huskies. They did.
"That's something a week ago we weren't real happy with, and I can't tell you how hard Greg has worked with those guys," Hoke said. "It's nice to see some of that taking place, some of those lessons, the fundamentals and techniques. We've still got a long way to go."
With nine sacks in four games, (2.3 per game), Michigan is on pace for 29 over a 13-game season. That would improve upon last season's 22 but would fall short of 2011's 30 QB takedowns. Of course, with momentum and confidence, and the awakening of Clark, the numbers could spike and the ferocious front seven we heard about all offseason and in fall camp, may just emerge after all.
"We're Michigan. We pride ourselves on stopping the run and getting to the quarterback on defense," Clark said.