No. 32: Injury bug

Death, taxes and injuries to football players. Stanford's 2010 season was magical in many ways, perhaps none more so than the strange fact that the team would enjoy one of the most injury-free seasons in the nation. The 2011 campaign, however, would be a different story entirely.

We continue our ambitious offseason series, counting down the top 40 moments of the Harbaugh/ Shaw era.

No matter how you slice it, Stanford football has arrived. Though we've since assumed all the trappings of a football powerhouse – the three straight runner-up finishes in Heisman voting, the two straight BCS bowl berths and top-10 finishes, the top-ten 2012 recruiting class, or the eminent graduation of top pro prospect of the last decade – it wasn't that long ago that Stanford football was an afterthought.

On December 19, 2006, new athletic director Bob Bowlsby hired Jim Harbaugh, a former star quarterback, but an unproven coach who had never worked at the FBS level. The rest, as they say, was history.

We are pleased present Stanford football's 40 most memorable moments, trends, games and personalities from the magical five-plus years that followed that December 2006 announcement.

On Sept. 17, 2011, No. 6 Stanford beat Arizona, 37-10, to move to 3-0. Ho hum, just another blowout of an overmatched opponent. Stanford had already smacked around San Jose State and Duke, and four more puppy dogs were on the schedule before USC loomed in Game 7.

For Shayne Skov, however, the game was anything but routine. On a tackle in the second quarter, Skov caught his leg underneath him, and the resulting knee injury meant that Stanford's defensive MVP and All-American candidate would not play another snap that season.

The injury gods only became more aggressive from there in making up for their relative absence the season previous. After Skov's injury, senior Delano Howell was quite possibly the team's best remaining defender. Howell, however, found his arm in a cast as frequently as not in the 2011 campaign, no minor inconvenience when trying to break up passes, and had to miss several games because of his wounded limb.

No worries, for freshman Wayne Lyons was a stud defensive back recruit who was starting to live up to the hype; perhaps he could help shore up the backfield in Howell's absence. Like Skov, however, Lyons too would be lost for the season after Game 3, this time to an injured foot.

Hey, at least Stanford's offense was untouchable. Except, at USC in the team's first real fight of the season, Zach Ertz was lost for the game after injuring his lower right leg. The injury, naturally, occurred on the opening kickoff, which means that the Cardinal had to throw much of their playbook out the window before the offense ever took the field. Stanford leaned heavily on a three tight-end offense early in the year, with Ertz leading fellow "Tree Amigos" Levine Toilolo and Coby Fleener, a potential first-round draft pick, in receptions. But three tight-end formations, accounting for about a quarter of the playbook per David Shaw, went the way of the horse carriage, and Stanford's offense would have to bear the consequences. Toilolo and tackle Cameron Fleming each also missed time during the season, further hampering Stanford's offensive plans.

The most consequential of injuries, however, belonged to Chris Owusu. He sustained a horrific concussion against Oregon in 2010, and then was knocked out of games against USC, Washington State and Oregon State by helmet-to-helmet hits in 2011. Owusu was the team's No. 1, some would say sole, deep threat, at least until Ty Montgomery took Owusu's spot, and certainly the senior's presence and full health would have helped Stanford on the field. Immeasurably more important, of course, is Owusu's health, especially in light of ongoing research into and discoveries of concussions' long-term health effects, and The Bootleg wishes him all the best moving forward.

Football is a three-phase sport, so the injury gods would be remiss were they to neglect the special teams units. Jordan Williamson started the season 11-of-12 before injuring his leg and being forced to the sideline. When he did return to action, he was not the same player. Punter David Green also "worked through some things" during the season, as Jim Harbaugh would put it.

Admittedly, the one guy the team absolutely could not afford to lose stayed healthy. (Hint: He wears a No. 12 jersey.) Still, the Cardinal didn't catch too many other breaks on the injury front. Instead of a story of woe, however, the team turned the injury challenges into a story of resilience.

Certainly Oklahoma State would have gone the other way were Stanford healthier. Owusu would have provided a much-needed deep presence opposite Montgomery, stretching the field, opening up the running game, and quite possibly scoring points on his own, given his quarterback and the defense he would have been facing. I don't think it's a stretch of the imagination to see Williamson, who was having an All-Conference season prior to his injury, faring better had he coasted healthily through the 2011 season. Plus, Skov and a 100 percent Howell could have helped the D keep Oklahoma State out of the 40s. Heck, Stanford probably would have won fairly comfortably now that I think about it.

So, best as I can tell, Stanford could have finished 12-1 with better health, No. 3 nationally instead of No. 7. (Some fans say that with a full complement of guys we would have beaten Oregon too. I don't see it, so we'll have to agree to disagree on that one.)

The discrepancy between No. 3 and No. 7 is peanuts, however, compared to the crisis this team averted by digging deep and having quality depth ready to play when the moment struck. The offense had to grind against Cal more than it would have liked as it was, and that three-point victory could have gone the other way had Stanford's personnel losses had more of an impact. USC was tight enough that one more broken pinky could have swayed the outcome, so it's easy to see Stanford losing there had the injuries had more of an effect. Maybe Notre Dame, who was No. 22 in the country at the time, could have knocked off the Card had Stanford's D fallen apart with the loss of its two leaders.

Add it all up, and all of a sudden you're staring at a four- or five-loss season with potential losses to USC, Cal and Notre Dame, our three biggest rivals. A team that started in the top-10 could have easily finished the season unranked and been the most underperforming team in the country. Therefore, instead of bemoaning the injuries that did occur, let us celebrate the fact that the team was deep enough, resilient enough, led well enough and, heck, maybe lucky enough, to enjoy the season that it did.

Fighting back from adversity is the most cliché of sports narratives, but that's exactly what happened in 2011. Stanford football refused to let any obstacle stand in the way of a season to remember.


Previous
50-41. More memorable moments - Loukas, a lot of Luck, and a phantom clipping call
40. Fake out - Luck stuns UW with a naked bootleg in 2010
39. Polls and bowls - Stanford climbs into college football's beauty contests
38. Steamrolled - Card run for 446 yards in 2011 beatdown of Washington
37. Opening act - 2009 win over Oregon launches a November to remember
36. Going bowling - Loss to Oklahoma doesn't ruin first bowl game since 2001
35. "Shut up and play football" - After pregame jawing, Cal finds itself in a 45-0 hole in 2010
34. Look ma, no legs - Luck throws a 52-yard dart while in free fall
33. Sit down - Burfict's head leads to go-ahead TD, Wilkerson's head ices the W at ASU


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