A healthy Stanford is a happy Stanford. And for the first time since about the midway point of the regular season, the Cardinal are as close to 100 percent as they are going to be.
When Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, several key players will be moving quicker than they were in the final few games of the regular season. Understanding just how beat up his team was heading into the postseason, head coach David Shaw said repairs on both sides of the ball were a top priority.
"We've got to get healthy," Shaw said after the Notre Dame victory in the regular season finale. "We played with our three tight ends and two of them were probably 80 percent. Our backs have been beaten up and bruised all year. We have to get them fresh."
Injuries, no doubt, took their toll on the Cardinal this year. It all started in the third game of the season when middle linebacker Shayne Skov -- arguably one of the top run stoppers in the country -- went down against Arizona and was lost for the year with a knee injury. Suddenly one of the best run defenses in the country looked a little thin. A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster filled in admirably -- better, in fact, than most expected -- but neither is at the level yet of Skov.
Still, they have endured, ranking fifth nationally in rush defense, allowing just 90.3 yards per game.
Like all teams, the Cardinal fell prey to the typical bumps and bruises. But a critical bump occurred against USC, when tight end Zach Ertz suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff and would go on to miss the next three games.
Why is Ertz so significant? About one-third of Stanford's offensive playbook involves three-tight-end formations. With Ertz, Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo on the field at the same time, the Cardinal offense was able to exploit numerous mismatches. Ryan Hewitt split time between fullback and tight end during that stretch. But even then, quarterback Andrew Luck would lose Hewitt out of the backfield, one of his most reliable and productive receivers coming out from behind the line of scrimmage.
Ertz returned for the season finale against Notre Dame. Nowhere near 100 percent, he caught one ball for no yards. But the fact that he was even on the field was a morale boost for his teammates. He's expected to be near full-strength -- if not at 100 percent -- for the Fiesta Bowl.
"It's exciting to have the tight ends back together and ready to go," said Fleener, who was recently named to the AP All-America third-team offense. "I think it's just exciting to know that we have a lot of guys back at full strength and hopefully we can be as good as we were before a lot of the injuries. It can only make us better as a team."
Obviously, Skov won't be back. Neither will wide receiver Chris Owusu, who has suffered at least three concussions in the past 14 months -- the scariest (as if they aren't all scary) coming against Oregon State when he was taken off the field in an ambulance.
There was some hope for Owusu's return because he's a senior and one of the emotional leaders of the offense, but head coach David Shaw told reporters last week "it's not going to happen."
"He's just been one of those guys," Shaw said following a practice last week. "And he's gotten beaten up and knocked out, and he comes back. He's been beaten up and knocked out, and he comes back. And the players recognize that as the guy that they look to for courage."
In Owusu's absence, true freshman Ty Montgomery has been filling in, giving Cardinal fans a glimpse of the future. In the final three games, Montgomery caught 10 balls (on 16 targets) for 130 yards and a touchdown in the finale against Notre Dame.
Still, they have endured, ranking 11th nationally in total offense while averaging almost 481 yards per game.
Offensive linemen Cameron Fleming and Jonathan Martin also had lingering lower leg injuries that forced Fleming to miss time. Both are expected to be back at or near full strength.
Offensive lineman David DeCastro offered a more glass-half-empty view of the Cardinal injury situation.
"We're never going to be injury-free," he said, "that's just part of college football."
On the opposite side of the ball -- aside from Skov -- one of the biggest temporary losses was safety Delano Howell. While he convalesced his injured hand for three games -- only to re-injure it in the first half against Oregon -- Michael Thomas stepped in and split time between free and strong safety.
Youngsters Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards got lots of playing experience that will aid the Cardinal in years to come, but Stanford is clearly a better defense when Howell is on the field. He too is expected to be at full strength.
And yet throughout the injury-plagued season, the players have never used injuries as an excuse.
"I think what it comes down to is no matter who is available, the coaches did an awesome job putting us in the best positions to succeed," Fleener said. "Whether it was Zach or Hewitt in there, ultimately our identity is running the football and being a physical team regardless of who is on the field. That shouldn't change with the personnel."