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Stanford Cardinal vs. UCLA Bruins Prediction and Preview

UCLA Bruins head coach Chip Kelly

UCLA Bruins head coach Chip Kelly

UCLA snapped one streak last week with its 34-27 defeat of crosstown rival USC, ending a three-year drought in the series. The Bruins now take aim at ending another, longer skid in the season finale Saturday at the Rose Bowl against Stanford.

The Cardinal come to town winners of 10 straight matchups in the series dating back to the 2009 season. Stanford's winning streak includes four straight at the Rose Bowl by an average of almost three touchdowns. Reversing this dubious trend would end the first season of Chip Kelly's tenure in Los Angeles on a high note.

Stanford at UCLA

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 3 p.m. ET

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Spread: Stanford -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Who runs L.A.?

A common theme for much of Stanford's dominance in the series against UCLA has been its ability to establish a primary ball-carrier against the Bruins defense. Toby Gerhart rushed for 134 yards and three touchdowns in 2009; Stepfan Taylor gained 112 on just 17 carries with two touchdowns in 2011, then 142 yards with two scores the next year; Christian McCaffrey erupted on the national stage with his 243-yard, four-touchdown outing in 2015; and Bryce Love rolled up 263 yards in last season's rout.

The tables may be turned in 2018, however. Stanford has struggled to mount a consistent rushing attack, the result of Love being hobbled by an ankle injury. Meanwhile, unlikely Bruins star Joshua Kelley comes in off a record-setting performance and has been one of the best backs in the Pac-12 this season. The ability to lean on Kelley to wear down the Stanford defense and give quarterback Wilton Speight time to operate would mark a dramatic role reversal from recent installments of this series.

2. Go long

Although Stanford's run game hasn't produced at a typical level for a David Shaw-coached team, the Cardinal have found success at times this season when quarterback K.J. Costello uncorks the deep ball. The Cardinal rank third in the Pac-12 in passing plays of 20 yards or more, a byproduct of their deep pass-catcher rotation. Chief among Stanford's receiving threats is JJ Arcega-Whiteside, returning to the lineup after missing the Nov. 10 matchup with Oregon State due to injury.

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Arcega-Whiteside is at his most dangerous on deep routes, which Stanford sets up by peppering the defense with short and intermediate passes to Trenton Irwin and the tight-end duo of Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson.

UCLA counters with a talented secondary, arguably the strength of the defense, particularly in recent weeks with the emergence of Elijah Gates and Quentin Lake. Senior Nate Meadors' interception last week against USC further demonstrates the unit's depth behind standouts Adarius Pickett and Darnay Holmes.

Despite the undeniable talent in the UCLA secondary, the Bruins have been prone to surrendering the long ball. They rank No. 116 in FBS in passing plays of 30 yards or more given up this season.

3. More focus on special teams

UCLA coach Chip Kelly raised eyebrows a few weeks ago when he dismissed the role of special teams coordinator. The issue would perhaps be a more of a hot-button topic this week had the Bruins lost to USC, a program that places particular emphasis on that phase with coordinator John Baxter. The Trojans scored a touchdown on a blocked punt and extended a drive with a fake field goal.

The Bruins face another opponent that places particular emphasis on special teams. Stanford coordinator Pete Alamar has been something of an unsung hero for the Cardinal, with Stanford routinely boasting some of the best special teams play in the country. This season has been no exception. Punter Jake Bailey is integral to flipping the field for the Stanford defense, and placekicker Jet Toner is a consistent scoring threat when the Cardinal move inside the 30-yard line.

UCLA isn't without playmakers on special teams: J.J. Molson and Stefan Flintoft excel in their roles as kicker and punter, respectively, with Flintoft coming off a performance last week that was crucial to the Bruins' win. But with Kelly's recent comments on employing a special teams coach, the significance of that facet is heightened when facing an opponent that puts the role prominently on the agenda.

Final Analysis

To deem UCLA better than its record feels a bit cliche at this point, but it's true: The Bruins play with energy and physicality. This team is unlikely to be beaten up the way recent UCLA squads have been against Stanford, and in turn, the Bruins have the players to counter the Cardinal's physicality in kind.

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But with Stanford coming off something of a bye week — The Big Game was postponed due to poor air quality in the Bay Area — the Cardinal should be fresh and sharp. Stanford's offense will be the closest to 100 percent that it has been since early September, which should be enough to make the difference.

Prediction: Stanford 27, UCLA 23

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.