Stanford enters Saturday's game against USC as huge underdogs. The No. 21 Cardinal look to upset the No. 2 Trojans this year without the likes of Andrew Luck. On paper, it seems unlikely, but Stanford has had USC's number, beating them three consecutive times.
The Trojans have assembled one of their most promising teams in years and look to bulldoze their way through the Pac-12. The Cardinal, on the other hand, simply want to prove that they can still contend in the conference and would love to spoil USC's season.
Stanford will have to play a near-perfect game to have a chance at winning, and here are the keys for doing so.
Stepfan Taylor runs the ball against Duke
Stepfan Taylor and the Stanford running game have not had much success this season, even against teams like San Jose State and Duke.
The Cardinal only averaged 3.7 yards per rush against those two teams and need to do much better against USC to have any chance at an upset. The offensive line must step it up in order to not only allow Taylor to get into a groove but also to give Josh Nunes some time in the pocket against the Trojan defense.
Once Nunes completes a few passes to targets such as Levine Toilolo, Ty Montgomery and Zach Ertz, USC will have to respect the Cardinal passing game, which will open up a few more holes for running back Stepfan Taylor.
QB Matt Barkley and Head Coach Lane Kiffin
Matt Barkley is arguably the best quarterback in college football this year.
That's why the Cardinal need to find a way to keep him off the field for as long as possible. The ground and pound style of offense that Stanford likes to run should help with that. As long as Nunes and company can keep moving the chains, they will be able to build some long drives while keeping the ball out of Barkley's hands.
The Cardinal's strong defense could also contribute to keeping Barkley on the sideline. Pressuring the quarterback and forcing the Trojans into third-and-long situations will be the key to having USC run out their punter.
Marqise Lee and Robert Woods
The Cardinal have enough to worry about in Matt Barkley. Then add wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods to the mix, and you become every defensive coordinator's worst nightmare. USC's star receivers have even impressed Stanford head coach David Shaw, who has said that he's never seen a duo like Lee and Woods on the same team.
It will take a team effort to shut them down. Stanford will need to pressure Barkley, and the inexperienced secondary must really be on their toes.
Last year's 3OT fumble that led to a Stanford victory
Turnovers can always change a game, and Stanford leads the Pac-12 in turnover margin at plus-five.
In addition, the team has already recorded four interceptions in two games, compared to only seven last season. In what I believe will be a close game between these two teams once again, every possession counts, so losing a fumble or throwing a pick might just cost Stanford the game.
In last year's edition of this game, a fumble in triple overtime cost USC and resulted in a Cardinal win once again.
The Cardinal will need as much help as they can get, and a little special teams magic will certainly add to their cause. Just last week in the game against Duke, Drew Terrell had a punt return for 76 yards that resulted in a touchdown. Whether it be a muffed punt by the Trojans or a blocked field goal, Stanford will gladly take it in their bid to upset USC.
Of course, big plays for the special teams would be nice, but Stanford needs to also do the simple things effectively. This includes punting and successfully kicking PATs. These somewhat overlooked aspects of special teams can come back and haunt a team in the end.