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October 28, 2007

No. 7 Arizona State overcomes California

Box score

TEMPE, Ariz. Arizona State initially responded to its biggest test of the season Saturday by acting like a kid who shows up 15 minutes late for a final exam.

The Sun Devils trailed 13-0 before they ever picked up a first down. Their second drive resulted in a touchdown for the opposition. Arizona State was penalized for almost as many yards (30) as it gained (33) in the first quarter.

"We obviously seem to come out early and really dominate the game," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson quipped afterward.

Not that it mattered.

No. 7 Arizona State responded to its disastrous first quarter by dominating the final three periods of a 31-20 victory over No. 21 California that continued the Sun Devils' season-long pattern.

The unbeaten Sun Devils have gotten off to their fastest start in over a decade by developing into fast finishers. Arizona State (8-0, 5-0 Pac-10) has been outscored 59-33 in the first quarter of games this season, but they're beating teams 153-29 in the second half.

They spotted Colorado an early 14-point lead before scoring the game's final 33 points. They turned a 19-0 first-quarter deficit against Oregon State into a 44-32 triumph. They trailed Washington 17-10 at halftime before rallying for a 44-20 victory.

Arizona State outscored California 17-0 in the second half Saturday to take over sole possession of the Pac-10 lead heading into next weekend's showdown at Oregon. That game should feature two of the top five teams in the Bowl Championship Series standings, as Arizona State was fourth and Oregon was fifth before Saturday's results.

"Our confidence just keeps growing," Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter said, "and our swagger keeps getting bigger."

This latest comeback may have represented Arizona State's greatest turnaround yet. Pretty much nothing went right for the Sun Devils in the opening period.

They weren't protecting Carpenter.

An offensive line that entered the game having allowed nearly four sacks per game gave up two more on Arizona State's first six snaps of the night. The second sack resulted in a fumble that California defensive end Cameron Jordan returned 13 yards for the game's first touchdown.

Offensive Player of the Game
Arizona State RBs Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance proved the Sun Devils' rushing attack could survive Ryan Torain's season-ending injury. Herring rushed for 96 yards on 24 carries. Nance scored three touchdowns and gained 85 yards on 21 carries.
Defensive Player of the Game
Arizona State CB Justin Tryon collected seven tackles, broke up two passes and had one of the Sun Devils' two second-half interceptions of Nate Longshore.
Turning Point I
Arizona State appeared on the verge of implosion after Michael Jones dropped a sure touchdown pass on the next-to-last play of the first quarter with California leading 13-0. Instead of getting frustrated over the drop, Carpenter calmly hit Kyle Williams for a 17-yard gain on third-and-seven to close the first period. Arizona State went on to score its first touchdown on Dimitri Nance's 11-yard run later in the drive.
Turning Point II
Arizona State trailed 20-14 and faced fourth-and-1 from California's 8-yard line on its opening drive of the second half when the Sun Devils chose to go for the first down. Nance was stacked up in the backfield as soon as he got the handoff, but he shook off the defenders, maintained his balance and found a crease into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
Surprise performance
Arizona State WR Tyrice Thompson blocked Jordan Kay's 44-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter, which marked the first time the Sun Devils had blocked a field goal since Oct. 14, 2000.
Carpenter's thumb
Arizona State QB Rudy Carpenter sprained a thumb during the game. Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said he didn't expect the injury to sideline Carpenter next week. "He's a warrior,'' Erickson said.
What this means for California
The Golden Bears' third consecutive loss could prove devastating for a team that harbored realistic hopes of a national title just a few weeks ago. California plays host to Washington State and USC the next two weeks. That Cal-USC showdown doesn't look nearly as important now as it did at the start of the season.
What this means for Arizona State
The Sun Devils continued to complain about a lack of respect after the California game, but they're about to get a whole lot of attention. Arizona State should remain one of the top four teams in the next BCS standings and will play one of the biggest games of the season thus far next weekend at Oregon.
The Phoenix Suns watched Saturday's game from front-row seats.. California WR Robert Jordan has caught at least one pass in a school-record 37 consecutive games. Erickson's 8-0 record moves him into second place on the list of fastest starts by a Pac-10 coach at a new school. Stanford's Charles Taylor started 9-0 in 1951. Arizona State's victory represented Dennis Erickson's 27th career win against a ranked opponent, but his first since he led Oregon State to a 49-24 triumph over No. 8 Washington on Nov. 10, 2001.
They weren't hanging on to the ball.

Michael Jones beat Syd'Quan Thompson down the right sideline and appeared on his way to scoring a 42-yard touchdown in the next-to-last play of the first quarter before Carpenter's pass bounced off his hands in the end zone.

Perhaps most importantly, they weren't getting breaks.

Officials didn't penalize Davis when he appeared to grab Carpenter's face mask while knocking the ball loose in a play that resulted in Jordan's touchdown. Replay officials upheld DeSean Jackson's 21-yard touchdown catch near the left sideline in a second-quarter call that could have gone either way.

But the toughest call of all came late in the first half.

Jackson caught a punt deep in California territory and was immediately grabbed by Arizona State's Chris Baloney, whose left knee knocked the ball loose just as Jackson's right knee was hitting the ground. Arizona State recovered the fumble and appeared to have first-and-goal at the 10, but officials ruled that an inadvertent whistle ended the play before Jackson lost the ball.

Instead of allowing the bad breaks and bad play to affect their performance the rest of the night, the Sun Devils simply took out their frustrations on California (5-3, 2-3) in the second half.

"We didn't panic," Arizona State wide receiver Kyle Williams said. "We didn't sweat. Nothing like that at all. We know it's a 60-minute game. 13-0 in the first quarter means nothing to us. It's what it is in the fourth quarter. We came back and played second-half football like we're supposed to."

Indeed, an all-around team effort helped Arizona State erase that 20-14 halftime deficit.

After going 5-of-13 for just 45 yards in the first half, Carpenter went 12-of-16 for 174 yards over the final two periods. He threw for 143 yards in the third quarter alone as Arizona State took the lead for good.

"I knew going into the second half if we were going to win this game, I had to start completing some passes," Carpenter said. "I had to take it on myself to start playing better."

He wasn't the only one who started playing better.

Jones redeemed himself for that early drop by making a beautiful 31-yard, over-the-shoulder catch on the third-quarter touchdown drive that gave Arizona State a 21-20 lead. Thomas Weber capped the Sun Devils' second drive of the second half with a career-long 47-yard field goal that made the redshirt freshman a perfect 15-of-15 in his college career.

Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance combined to rush for 108 yards in the second half as they continued to make sure Arizona State's running game didn't miss a beat without Ryan Torain, who rushed for over 1,200 yards last season and was on his way to matching that success this year before fracturing a bone in his left foot two weeks ago.

Nance rushed for 85 yards and three touchdowns, including an 8-yard score on a fourth-and-1 play that put the Sun Devils ahead for good. Herring picked up 96 yards and delivered the game's best highlight in the fourth quarter when he broke three tackles in the backfield and reversed his field twice on his way to a 13-yard gain.

"It was warm out there," Erickson said, "and I sincerely believe we wore them down there in the third and fourth quarter with our running game."

But the biggest improvement in this team has come on defense.

Arizona State allowed at least 40 points in four of its six losses last season, including a 41-24 Hawaii Bowl setback against Hawaii in which the Warriors exploded for 38 points after halftime. This year, the Sun Devils have given up more than 20 points just once all season.

California reached the 20-point mark in the first 21 minutes of Saturday's game, but the Golden Bears wouldn't score again. Arizona State picked off Nate Longshore twice in the second half and held Justin Forsett to 62 rushing yards.

"There's a different attitude," Arizona State linebacker Robert James said. "Everyone knows their job and assignments. Nobody's being selfish. Everybody's where they're supposed to be and doing their job."

Arizona State hasn't always displayed this kind of ability to rise to the occasion. The Sun Devils posted a 2-19 record against teams in the Associated Press poll during the six-year tenure of former coach Dirk Koetter, who was fired despite leading Arizona State to bowl bids each of the last three seasons.

The Sun Devils replaced Koetter with Erickson, who brought his championship experience and reputation for quick turnarounds to the desert.

Erickson led Miami to the 1989 national championship and a share of the 1991 title between directing successful turnarounds at Washington State and Oregon State. Washington State won 10 games in Erickson's second season after going 3-7-1 the year before his arrival. He went 11-1 and won a Fiesta Bowl his second year at Oregon State, which was 11-33 in the four years before he showed up.

Arizona State's performance Saturday reflected the attitude Erickson has instilled in this team.

"They are a great football team," California coach Jeff Tedford said, "and they came out and proved it."

Arizona State still has quite a bit more to prove before it can give Erickson a shot at his third national title. The Sun Devils face a huge test next week at Oregon, then travel to UCLA the following week before playing host to USC in a Thanksgiving night showdown.

Erickson refused to discuss this team's championship possibilities Saturday night. He's too busy worrying about Oregon.

"I'm just trying to get our ninth win and (we'll) see what happens after that," Erickson said. "I watch some of those teams on TV, and they're kind of scary."

The Sun Devils are beginning to look equally scary. If they ever start playing better in the first quarter, they'll look downright terrifying to the rest of the nation.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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