tanford played a subpar first half before pulling away from Arizona in Tucson on Saturday. This much we all know. The Card finished the game with a 27-point win, easily covering the spread and impressing national voters enough to improve to #5 in the polls. We know that, too. Stanford continued its dominance over the Wildcats and can now boast a 6-1 record over its last 7 games against UA, further emphasizing that, so far as “big games” in an athletic season go, Saturday’s was not one of them.
But the 60 minutes played in Arizona Stadium could be one of the 3 most important games Stanford plays in the 2011 campaign. Stanford didn’t suffer a close loss or need a last-minute surge to win the game and accrue momentum to carry over from Week 3 to Week 5, but the season-ending knee injury that Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov suffered in the desert figures to impact the Card’s season for better or worse in a variety of substantial ways.
The first is obvious: the personnel in the Stanford defense and the playcalls that the coaching staff can and cannot call without Skov on the field. Skov is both the best defensive player on the team and one of the unit’s most important leaders at a pivotal strategic position. Skov was variously responsible for getting to the quarterback, stopping the run, dropping into pass coverage and virtually every task with which a defensive player could ever be charged. Teaching such versatility is hard enough, but Skov did his job at an All-American level. Players like him are not readily replaceable on any college team.
Saying that Stanford will miss Skov’s ability to make plays (admittedly an overused sports cliche, but one that fits the multifaceted job description of an inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme) is not an insult to the players that will fill in for him–namely men like Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley–so much as it is an admission that nationally elite players are rare. Stanford could have one or more potential all-conference players on the bench, ready to come in and become stars. Until that’s proven, though, assuming that the Card can readily replace Skov requires understandable but audacious optimism.
A second possible impact of the Skov injury works in the opposite direction. Players could rally around the disappointment of a lost season for the junior phenom and end up galvanized and performing better than they would have had the ship sailed through calm injury waters. Fellow linebacker Chase Thomas wore an eye black tribute on his arm to Skov on Saturday; the defense played an exceptional second half without Skov and against a quarterback, Nick Foles, whose first half was nearly flawless.
One justified gripe about this year’s team so far is that it hasn’t shown the edge that last year’s version had in bundles. Well, there’s nothing like a devastating injury to rally the troops and remind them both what can be lost and what can still be gained in the 9 remaining regular season games. In the conceptual space of arrested development sports analysis, this could be a pseudo-example of The Patrick Ewing Theory. (Take this with a grain of salt. Skov clearly doesn’t fit some criteria for the theory to work, but a Stanford cynic could cite the 2011 Cardinal defense as an example of the theory anyway.)
Regardless of which of the two, if either, turns out true, the Skov injury will be a milestone when it’s time to sum up the season in January. There’s only so much else to take from this game–how much did Stanford show that wasn’t already expected?–and Stanford likely won’t play a close football game until at least the end of October, when the Cardinal take on Washington and USC in consecutive weeks. Whether Stanford wins or loses those games and similarly challenging ones against Oregon and Notre Dame later in the fall will largely be determined by how the team recovers from the loss of a premier Stanford athlete and lightning rod on the field. For better or worse, last week’s game against Arizona will be much more important than its blowout final score will ever indicate.