Originally written on Crystal Ball Run  |  Last updated 11/17/14

Can Stanford's Tyler Gaffney carry the Stanford Cardinal to victory yet again? Photo: USA Today Sports   No. 5 Stanford at USC Saturday, 8:00 PM, ABC Line: Stanford -3 A month and a half ago, this game would have looked like a rout in the making. Not that Stanford was playing like gangbusters to start the season, but USC was a bit of a tire fire, looking listless and directionless overall, but especially on offense. Well, no more. Since the tarmac termination of Lane Kiffin and the ascendance of Ed Orgeron to interim head coach, the USC Trojans look like the program many expect them to be. The talk of scholarship restrictions and punitive NCAA penalties has melted away as the Trojans have won four of their last five games (all in conference) and find themselves only one game back of the Pac-12 South lead with three games to play. The Cardinal are coming off their biggest win of the season in a home victory over the Oregon Ducks. Suddenly, even after a surprising October loss to Utah, Stanford finds itself in the thick of the BCS title hunt. Can Stanford avoid a letdown against an in-state rival and build off of last week’s victory? Or will USC find a way to ruin the BCS title dreams for the Cardinal? For USC to win: Find a way to run the ball. Part of the renaissance for the Trojans after the dismissal of Kiffin was a rededication to running the ball. In particular the last two weeks, in road victories, USC has managed to rush for 498 yards. Of course, that is easier said than done against a Stanford defense that allows a Pac-12 leading 98.7 yards per game on the ground. Last week in defeating Oregon, another team that likes to run the ball, Stanford held the Ducks to only 62 yards. The Trojans have to use the run game to make their passing game dangerous. Becoming one dimensional through the air could spell disaster. For Stanford to win: Play disciplined special teams. USC used three special teams touchdowns to help thrash Cal last week 62-28. One was a blocked punt that was returned and the other two were punt returns by wide receiver Nelson Agholor. The Cardinal, in possession of their own explosive kick returner in Ty Montgomery, will want to make sure that their protection and coverage schemes are air tight. A big special teams play against them could shift momentum to the Trojans quickly, and as the road team, that is the last thing you want to have happen. Key Player, USC: Cody Kessler, quarterback. While the running game getting on track has helped him immensely, the sophomore quarterback has played very well so far this month, completing 81 percent of his passes and averaging over 10 yards per attempt. Now, he has only been asked throw it about 19 times a game so far this month, but it speaks to just how well the Trojans have been playing overall. Kessler, though, will need to play a smart and controlled game against an aggressive Stanford defense. He must protect the ball at all costs and make smart decisions or else the Trojans will be in deep trouble. Key Player, Stanford: Tyler Gaffney, running back. Gaffney has had an outstanding season so far this year, including a yeoman’s effort against the Oregon Ducks last week, toting the rock 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown. He doesn’t have burner speed (longest carry of the season: 43 yards) and he does not contribute that much in the passing game (10 receptions for 81 yards) but Gaffney will keep the chains moving. And he has done better on the road so far this season, rushing for almost a yard and a half better per carry away from The Farm. If Gaffney can keep the chains moving against USC and alleviate the pressure on Kevin Hogan, then the Cardinal may be on their way to another victory in this series. Key Stat: 4 and 3. The Cardinal have won four in a row in this series and three in a row at the Los Angeles Coliseum. However, the last three games have been decided by a touchdown or less.

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