Stanford's Shayne Skov tackles UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley during… (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images )
Stanford survived its 2011 season just fine without injured inside linebacker Shayne Skov.
The Cardinal almost won the Pac-12 Conference title and then almost won the Fiesta Bowl.
The defense, though, was a doughnut in the sense it had a hole in the middle.
Stanford missed Skov's commanding 2010 presence: 84 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Just as important, the team longed for his daily vocal vitamin C supplement.
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"I'm still, to this day, more of a lead-by-example guy," star outside linebacker Chase Thomas said during Rose Bowl preparations this week. "Shayne can really get the guys juiced up. He's got the speeches down pat in the locker room."
This wasn't the deep-throated oratory of Winston Churchill: "We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds." Thomas says Skov borrowed quotations from "The Raven."
"He's got that Ray Lewis mentality of motivational speeches," Thomas said, referring to Baltimore's All-Pro linebacker.
Skov's influence has been felt on campus and in opposing backfields.
He is not yet the player he was before shredding his left ACL more than a year ago against Arizona. But Skov has provided the angry edge that allowed Stanford to cut its way to this year's Pac-12 title.
Can one man make a difference?
Last year, without Skov, Oregon's offense ripped through Stanford en route to a 53-30 win in Palo Alto. The game cost the Cardinal the North Division title and a shot in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
This year, with Skov, Stanford's defense turned in a stunning performance at Eugene, Ore., as the Cardinal won in overtime, 17-14.
Skov had his helmet in the thick of it, finishing with 10 tackles in his best post-injury performance. Stanford held Oregon to 40 points below its 54-point scoring average.
The win clinched the Pac-12 North Division and advanced Stanford to its first Rose Bowl appearance in more than a decade.
"I'd say the feeling in the locker room was very unique," Skov recalled of the Oregon win as his team prepared for Tuesday's game against Wisconsin. "Any time somebody puts their heart and soul into something and ends up with the end result they were looking for, it's an incredible sense of satisfaction."
Skov is not a perfect player or person. He had to sit out this year's opener against San Jose State because of an off-season DUI arrest.
Yet he has brought the kind of unvarnished, relentless energy that has personified a new era of Stanford toughness established by former coach Jim Harbaugh.
"He's very passionate, a great, instinctive player," safety Ed Reynolds said of Skov.
Missing last year's fun tore Skov's insides out. After being injured in Week 3, he did his best to lead from the sideline, but nothing resonates quite like on-the-field inspiration.
"You can't believe it initially," he said. "It's hard to realize in the first couple of weeks what you've got ahead of you. Then, you do what any mountain climber or marathon runner would. You put your first foot in front of the other, and you keep going, one after the other."
Skov also compared the rehabilitation process to climbing a ladder one rung at a time. It was critical never to look too far ahead. "Or else you become a prisoner in your mind," he said.
There were times Skov wasn't sure about his football future.
"You're always a little bit nervous," he said. "But obviously, it's like the first time they let me jog. After that, it's the first time they let me run. First time to get back on the football field. First time to put on pads again. It's steps like that.'
Once cleared for practice contact, Skov unleashed on the first unsuspecting target he could find.
"I hit Kodi Whitfield, a freshman [receiver] probably harder than Coach would have liked," he said. "But I was just getting back on the football field for the first time, so I was like a little kid again."
Skov is inching closer to the player he was, lacking perhaps only some explosiveness.
His 74 tackles, 40 solo, leads the team. He was at his best when it counted, stuffing Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota on a critical fourth down and recording seven tackles against UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game.
Skov is a senior but eligible for an additional year as a medical redshirt. He was considered a top NFL prospect before his injury and he has sought evaluation from an NFL draft advisory board.
"I'm just weighing all my options," Skov said. "I love Stanford, so I have to take in all the information and make a decision."