The No. 5 Stanford Cardinal are on a roll when the team hits the road to take on the USC Trojans in Pac-12 play Saturday.
David Shaw's team is one week removed from an epic victory over then-ranked No. 3 Oregon and remains in the driver's seat to play host to the Pac-12 title game for the second straight year.
But the Trojans are not the surefire victory many would have thought earlier in the season with Lane Kiffin as coach. Kiffin has since been replaced by Ed Orgeron and USC has won four of five as a result.
The last time the Trojans were able to defeat a ranked opponent was in November of 2011. That can change in a hurry if the Cardinal do not tread lightly—especially after an emotional win.
Force Cody Kessler to the Air
USC has a very effective combo at running back in Tre Madden and Javorius Allen:
While the former has dealt with injuries in recent weeks, Allen has been especially important in helping quarterback Cody Kessler.
Kessler has had big games in recent weeks since Kiffin's departure. Much of the credit goes to a commitment to the run game. When Kessler is on it's because his life is made easier via his backs.
For example, when USC lost to Notre Dame earlier in the year, Madden missed the game and Allen gained 20 yards on seven carries. USC as a whole only mustered 129 yards on the ground (Silas Redd gained more than 100 yards but will miss this game against Stanford). Kessler wound up with a miserable line—20-of-34 for 201 yards and an interception.
Stanford has an outstanding defense that allows fewer than 100 rushing yards per game. If the Cardinal can keep that trend alive, Kessler will have a hard time winning the game on his own.
Ride Tyler Gaffney Once More
Stanford has quite the running attack as well.
The credit goes to a single name here—senior back Tyler Gaffney.
As ESPN points out, Gaffney was instrumental in last week's big win over Oregon:
Gaffney broke the school's record for carries in that game and now has 1,043 yards and 13 touchdowns on a 4.9 average. USC must understand that the Cardinal are similar to their offense in that Gaffney makes things significantly easier for quarterback Kevin Hogan.
The Cardinal need one more Gaffney-heavy game before he can relax in the team's next game against lowly California (1-9). His production on the ground will go a long way in deciding the outcome.
Continue What Works
It sounds so simple. Stanford has cruised to a victory in this matchup four straight times and five of the last six.
Which team wins?
Yet it cannot go understated how important Stanford's emotional win over the Ducks last week is here. We've all heard of a let-down performance and things of that nature.
Per ESPN, the last time (2011) USC beat a ranked opponent, said opponent was coming off a major victory over a Top-10 team (No. 6 Oregon beat No. 3 Stanford before losing to USC the next week).
History lesson aside, the Cardinal can avoid the same fate by doing what works. Stanford has more talent on both sides of the football. Run Gaffney down the Trojans' throats. Use a run defense that limited the explosive Oregon offense to 62 rushing yards. Hit Kessler early and often.
Steady is the course for Stanford in a hostile environment.