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Crucial Pac-12 affair pits USC against No. 5 Stanford

Los Angeles, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - The suddenly resurgent USC Trojans get to prove their for real, when the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal come to the City of Angels for a Pac-12 showdown under the lights at the Coliseum.

Riding high off an impressive win is Stanford, which dispatched Oregon 26-20, at home last Thursday night. It was the second straight year that the Cardinal have managed to end the Ducks' perfect season and likely any hopes of a national title bid. The now 8-1 Cardinal are in the driver's seat in the Pac-12 North.

"It's November. We talked as a team about it's time to play our best football," Stanford head coach David Shaw said, while adding that there is still plenty of work to do. "We can't be satisfied with just one win. We've got to win in November."

Stanford's win over Oregon was its third straight and pushed the Cardinal back into the top five nationally as well as into a select group that is just waiting for Florida State, Baylor and Ohio State to slip up for a chance at the BCS Championship game.

Though USC is not on the same level as the Cardinal, the Trojans certainly have a ton of momentum themselves. A 62-28 stomping of California in Berkeley last weekend was the team's third straight victory. Even better for interim head coach Ed Orgeron, it was the fourth in five tries since he took over for the fired Lane Kiffin. The recent surge has the Trojans at 7-3 overall and suddenly knocking on the door of the Top 25.

"I wanted them to just start believing in each other first. Believe in each other and have fun in practice, and that's something that leads to winning," Orgeron said about his approach. "I really believe in this team and these young men. Regardless of who we play, regardless of the circumstances, we're going to play as a team."

USC went toe-to-toe with Stanford last year but still came away with a 21-14 loss. The win was the fourth straight and fifth in the last six meetings for Stanford. However, USC has been in control of the all-time series historically with a 58-29-3 record.

The Cardinal's gameplan against Oregon was simple - give the ball to Tyler Gaffney. Stanford executed that strategy to perfection in the win as Gaffney had a program record 45 carries in the contest. Gaffney has been the next in line for the Cardinal, who have relied heavily on workhorse running backs in recent memory. Gaffney has joined the ranks of such players as Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart. He has rushed for 1,043 yards and 13 touchdowns on 211 carries. That is the third most in the Pac-12. Gaffney proved against Oregon that he can still be effective while taking a beating as he finished with 157 yards and a touchdown to help slay the Ducks. However, he is listed as questionable for Saturday's game. Anthony Wilkerson (232 yards, TD) is the backup option.

With Gaffney leading the charge the Cardinal has been an extremely balanced offensive team. While they are averaging a healthy 31.9 points per game, the Cardinal are putting up less than 390 yard of total offense each week with 205 coming on the ground and 183 through the air.

Kevin Hogan has been the steady hand at quarterback. Hogan hasn't been asked to carry the team much this season but he has done a solid job in keeping the Cardinal offense humming. Hogan has thrown for 1,596 yards and 13 touchdowns on 60.5 percent passing and his five interceptions show how careful he has been with the ball. Hogan had just seven completions and 103 yards passing against Oregon.

When Hogan has had to make plays he has heavily favored Ty Montgomery. The junior wide receiver has been by far the biggest threat in the passing game. Montgomery leads the team in receptions (41), yards (639) and touchdowns (five).

Stanford's dedication and major strength is on defense. The Cardinal are holding teams to just 348.8 yards and 19.4 points per game. They are especially strong against the run where they are allowing a Pac-12 best 3.2 yards per carry. Pac-12 sacks leader Trent Murphy (10 sacks) is a major reason the Cardinal create so much pressure. Shayne Skov (72 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks) is another ferocious defender in the front seven.

Clearly the USC offense will have quite a challenge ahead of it. USC is among the bottom half of the Pac-12 in both total yards (4-2.6 ypg) and points per game (29).

Hogan's counterpart this week is Cody Kessler, who didn't need to do much last week. Kessler threw for 170 yards and two scores, completing 14-of-17 pass attempts, but the play of the Trojans' special teams meant he did not need to throw as often. Kessler has been solid this year, just like Hogan, as he is completing 64.3 percent of his passes for 1,977 yards and 12 touchdowns to only six interceptions. Kessler has been sacked 20 times but he has also connected on better than 80 percent of his pass attempts in each of the last two games.

A look at Nelson Agholor's receiving numbers from last week (four receptions, 35 yards) might lead you to believe he was ineffective. That could not be farther from the truth as the team's leading receiver proved how dangerous he can be on special teams by returning two punts for touchdowns. The Trojans tied a NCAA record with three returns for touchdowns, the other coming off a block. Agholor (36 receptions, 647 yards, three TDs) has made plays in the passing game as well. Marqise Lee (38 receptions, 521 yards, two TDs) has not been playing at the same level as a year ago when he won the Biletnikoff Award, but has still been a steady presence.

Javorius Allen has rushed for at least 130 yards and two scores in each of the last two weeks as leading rusher Tre Madden (671 yards, three TDs) has been dealing with a leg injury. Madden is expected to miss Saturday's game, which means Allen has the difficult task of trying to produce against the stout Stanford defense. Silas Redd has also been a competent option in the backfield.

Just like Stanford, USCc is a team that thinks defense first, or at least it has under Orgeron. The Trojans are second in the Pac-12 in total defense (339 ypg) and third in points allowed (19.6 ppg). USC has also been a team that excels in getting pressure as it is tied with Stanford for second in the conference in sacks (30). Devon Kennard (8.0 sacks) and Leonard Williams (5.0 sacks) are the anchors up front, while Josh Shaw is one of three players with three interceptions for the Trojans.

11/13 10:57:37 ET

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