There could not have been a better stage for Taylor Lewan to plead his case.
The Michigan All-American left tackle had the perfect opportunity Tuesday to show why he might forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year, was expecting an Outback Bowl matchup with South Carolina sophomore Jadeveon Clowney, college football's top defensive end.
And what a battle it was.
Clowney, who came into the game with 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, has often been mentioned as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender for 2013.
The two stars tugged, held and scratched each other for the most of the afternoon. Lewan held his own throughout the game, keeping Clowney at a distance from Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.
It wasn't until midway in the fourth quarter that the 6'6", 256-pound Clowney made an impact. With Michigan leading 22-21, Clowney made a clever inside move and dislodged overmatched running back Vincent Smith (5'6", 175 lbs.) from the football, his helmet and most likely his senses. Clowney's recovery of the fumble was made even sweeter as the Gamecocks scored the first of two fourth quarter touchdowns on the very next play.
South Carolina came away with a last-minute 33-28 Outback Bowl victory, but Lewan practically punched his own ticket to the upcoming NFL draft.
"That’s a great question," Lewan told the press after the game. "I haven’t addressed the team yet. I’ll address the team, and then we’ll do whatever coach (Brady) Hoke wants to do and how he lets that out to the public. It’s not fair to my team to tell you all and not tell them."
Clowney could follow Lewan into the pros, too, but college players aren't eligible for the NFL draft until after their junior season.
For both South Carolina and Michigan, next season is all about challenging for their respective conference crowns.
For Clowney, he believes he can the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman since Michigan's Charles Woodson in 1997.
"That's my next thing, New York," Clowney told ESPN after a recent practice. "Next season, I am going to come out and try to work harder than I did this season and try to get there."