After six relatively quiet games, he finally got his chance to make a big hit.
And when the opportunity arose, Clifford Dukes left an imprint that Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer won't soon forget, especially when he stands on the sidelines this weekend in Ann Arbor.
The junior defensive end fought around the left end and hit Beutjer with enough power to make any spectator cringe.
It was his fourth sack of the season, equal to his 2002 total, which led the team. Dukes' improved production has gone virtually unnoticed with all of the attention surrounding the 30 sacks the Spartans (6-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) have induced this season.
With all the talk of the rebirth of Matthias Askew, Greg Taplin and Kevin Vickerson, Dukes has become somewhat of a forgotten man. But with his reputation as the hardest worker on the defense and John L. Smith's label as the most improved player during the off-season, Dukes could care less about being in the limelight.
"I don't mind," Dukes said. "I can make a play here and there. I'm on the harder side of the ball. I'm on the tight end side and get more double teams. As long as we win and I get my job done, my teammates will make plays."
But one of the defense's biggest playmakers, rush defensive end Greg Taplin, is "questionable at best" for Saturday's game at Minnesota, according to Smith. If Taplin sits, Dukes might switch from his normal stud defensive end position to the rush end. If that happens, the team will rely on redshirt freshman Clifton Ryan and senior Luc Mullinder to hold down the stud position.
The difference between the two positions is that the stud end will line up with the tight end and get "double teams and all kinds of crazy blocks," while the rush end has more liberty to beat a single block and get to the quarterback.
That factor has contributed to Taplin and Askew's Big Ten-leading six sacks, but Dukes knows that despite his 34 tackles and four sacks, working hard to win is all that matters.
"Ever since high school when I started playing, I was like that," Dukes said. "I don't like to be outworked by anybody."
This weekend's matchup should be the toughest the MSU defense has faced all season. Golden Gophers running back Marion Barber III is coming off a 197-yard game and Minnesota (6-1, 2-1) is hungry for a win after last week's implosion against Michigan.
"I watched the Michigan game and he's a pretty good back," Dukes said. "He waits to see the hole open up before he goes to it. He's a patient back. Those are the most dangerous backs."
With his quick feet and athleticism, Dukes will have to be almost everywhere on the field against the Golden Gophers. He'll be fighting increased attention and an aggressive, sometimes violent, blocking scheme designed to strike fear in its opponents.
That is without mentioning the elusiveness of Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, who will be only the second true rushing quarterback the Spartans will have faced after shutting down Notre Dame's Carlyle Holiday.
Abdul-Khaliq ran for 106 yards and a touchdown on only nine carries against U-M.
"That's too much athleticism in one person," Dukes said. "He's a gifted quarterback. He can run the ball and throw the ball and is gifted in all areas."
But the MSU coaching staff has plenty of faith in Dukes to hold together the defensive line if his running mate Taplin is absent or pushed into reduced play.
"That boy is a warrior," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "If you had 11 Cliff Dukes, we would be fantastic. That kid plays hard every play; he's physical, athletic, got a great attitude and never misses practice.
"Cliff Dukes is the one that you want to recruit every year."