SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Inside linebacker Shayne Skov has been the literal and emotional center of Stanford's defense for more than two seasons, a mini-mohawked menace who forces opponents to account for him and teammates to follow his lead.
When he went down with a torn ACL during the third game this year, it was a devastating loss for the Cardinal, one that could have derailed their season.
Instead, it became a rallying point.
Relying on its depth and support from Skov during his rehab, fourth-ranked Stanford had one of the nation's best defenses during the regular season, a group that combined with Andrew Luck and the offense to lead the Cardinal to Monday night's Fiesta Bowl against No. 3 Oklahoma State.
"For the first time this year, we actually had some depth on defense and that really showed this year," Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas said. "We didn't really lose a beat, but Shayne did have that really special ability that garnered attention from every team we played. We definitely felt that loss this season."
With his mini-hawk and smeared-on eye black, Skov has added some edginess to the academics at The Farm. He has the game to back up the braggadocio, too.
Big, fast and with a love of contact, he had an immediate impact at Stanford, playing all 13 games and starting the final seven while finishing third on the team in tackles as a freshman in 2009.
Skov became a dominating force as a sophomore, teaming with Owen Marecic for one of the nation's best pairs of inside linebackers. Skov led the Cardinal with 84 tackles and had 7 1/2 sacks last season, and had a team-high 12 tackles in Stanford's victory over Virginia Tech a year ago in the Orange Bowl.
With Luck returning for his senior season and Skov anchoring the defense, the Cardinal had their eyes on another BCS bowl, possibly a national title run.
Skov took a big detour against Arizona on Sept. 17.
Moving in to make a tackle in the second quarter, Skov had his left knee buckle when Wildcats receiver Juron Criner barreled into him. Stanford announced the next day that Skov was done for the year, putting the go-hard-all-the-time linebacker on the shelf and likely ending thoughts of heading to the NFL early.
"It's tough -- you can see it a little bit," Stanford co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. "He lives and breathes football."
Despite Skov's injury, Stanford's defense has thrived. With a powerful front line and depth at every position, the Cardinal had one of the country's best defenses during the 2011 season.