Stanford’s BCS push will go on without its best defensive player

Dr. Saturday

For those of you who stayed up to watch Stanford's easy, 37-10 blowout over Arizona Saturday night, this won't come as any surprise, but predictability doesn't soften the blow: As feared, All-Pac-12 linebacker Shayne Skov is out for the rest of the season with an injury to his left knee, robbing the Cardinal of their best defensive player and most vocal leader with conference and national championships still in their sights. Skov spent the last two-and-a-half quarters Saturday night in visible (and sometimes audible) pain on the sideline, to the equally obvious chagrin of his teammates.

If non-West Coast fans know Skov's name, it's almost certainly from his star turn in January's Orange Bowl, where he was in on 12 tackles, five tackles for loss and four sacks in the Cardinal's methodical, 40-12 bludgeoning of Virginia Tech to wrap up Stanford's best season in 70 years. But that was par for the course: The Hokies were the ninth opponent in 13 games Stanford held below 17 points, including three shutouts, leaving the Cardinal as the conference's stingiest defense in terms of points allowed and among the top 25 nationally in rushing, pass efficiency, total and scoring D — in all, an improvement of 80 total yards and nine points per game over 2009. Before he left the game Saturday night, the starting defense hadn't allowed a touchdown over the first nine-and-a-half quarters of the season.{YSP:MORE}

Skov is most active patrolling between the tackles to clean up against the run, which didn't matter much Saturday against pass-oriented Arizona — the Wildcats only handed off 16 times, and were shut out after being forced into must-pass mode in the second half — but was where the defense really made its bread last year. Outside of being gashed by Oregon for 388 yards rushing in early October, the Cardinal yielded a paltry 107 yards per game on the ground in their other eleven, on just 3.3 per carry, on par with the best run defenses in the country.

The key phrase there, of course, being "Outside of being gashed by Oregon…" one of the overriding themes of last season and this one: If not for the Ducks' 49-10 run over the last three quarters in Eugene, Stanford would have finished undefeated and played for the national championship. And as good as quarterback Andrew Luck is, the difference in another very good season and a championship season (Pac-12 or BCS) could very well come down to the difference — or lack thereof — in the Cardinal's adjustment to Chip Kelly's warp-speed offense when the Ducks come to Palo Alto in November. Skov was a key figure in that effort, if not the key figure, and the odds of running the gauntlet against USC, Oregon and Notre Dame over the second half of the season just got a lot longer without him.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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