Sun Devils, Ducks on unexpected collision course

TEMPE, Ariz. &

Arizona State and Oregon will play for control of the Pac-10 and a possible shot at the national championship.

Raise your hand if you predicted that in August.

Picked by the Pac-10 media to finish in the middle of the conference, the fourth-ranked Ducks and No. 6 Sun Devils instead find themselves in the middle of the chase for the Bowl Championship Series title. ASU's 31-20 victory over then-No. 18 California, coupled with Oregon's 24-17 win over then-No. 9 Southern California, set up the West Coast's unexpected game of the year on Saturday in Autzen Stadium.

Neither team was ranked in the preseason. Reporters assigned to the conference pegged ASU to finish fourth in the Pac-10, two slots above the Ducks.

"We're just a bunch of guys who nobody thought was very good," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "It's kind of scary, starting to read our name in the paper every week now."

The Sun Devils (8-0, 5-0 Pac-10) lead the Ducks (7-1, 4-1) in the conference standings but trail them in the latest Associated Press Top 25. That's somehow fitting in this upside-down Pac-10 season.

When the season began, USC and Cal were expected to duel for the conference title. But the Golden Bears have plunged from No. 2 in the nation to sixth-place in the Pac-10 in 21 days, and the Trojans' unprecedented string of five straight Pac-10 titles is in peril.

Twice this year, a last-place team has handed a contender its first conference loss. It happened when Stanford upset USC on Oct. 6 and again on Saturday when Washington State beat UCLA.

Of course, the Bruins still control their own Rose Bowl destiny despite the 27-17 loss in Pullman.

Meanwhile, ASU and Oregon have been plugging along, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around them.

The Ducks have been lurking on the fringe of the national title picture since they went into Ann Arbor and ripped the Wolverines 39-7 on Sept. 8. The game came one week after Michigan's loss to Appalachian State, and many observers focused on the Wolverines' woes rather than the Ducks' strengths.

That's changed. After ushering the Trojans out of contention, the Ducks are no longer the best-kept secret in the Pacific Northwest.

"Now we put a big target on our back," Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon said. "Everyone wants a piece."

Dixon has quietly moved into Heisman Trophy contention as the triggerman on the nation's third-ranked offense, which averages 43.75 points per game. He ranks sixth nationally in passing efficiency, and has 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.

Oregon has beaten two Top 25 teams &

Michigan and USC &

and lost to a third, Cal, when Cameron Colvin fumbled as he dove for the potential tying touchdown in the final seconds. But coach Mike Bellotti said the Ducks' resume is incomplete.

"We still have a lot to prove, and I think we're ready to prove it," Bellotti said.

The Sun Devils were saying the same thing after their decisive victory over the slumping Golden Bears in Sun Devil Stadium, ASU's first win over a ranked opponent.

"It was a great win for us, obviously, but once we look at the tape of this game last night, it's over and done with," Erickson said on Sunday, before players reported for a film session. "You don't have time to celebrate too much, believe me."

The celebration in the stadium lasted long after the game. ASU students poured onto the field and tried to yank down the south goal post. But the goal post, like the Sun Devils, remained upright.

It remains to be seen whether ASU will still be standing after a trip to Autzen, perhaps the Pac-10's most intimidating venue.

"It's a group that hasn't been there, but you know what, they're having fun, and that's kind of what it's all about," Erickson said.

The Sun Devils have come up with a unique route to perfection. They dig themselves an early hole, then climb out and bury the opposition.

ASU handed Colorado a 14-0 first-quarter lead before storming back for a 33-14 victory on Sept. 8. Two weeks later, ASU trailed Oregon State 19-0 after one quarter before rallying for a 44-32 victory.

On Saturday night, the Sun Devils spotted Cal a 13-0 lead and trailed 20-14 at halftime, then overwhelmed the Golden Bears in the second half.

Erickson and his staff have also played a big role, using halftime to make adjustments that have confounded opponents. ASU has outscored its rivals by a combined 153-29 in the second half.

Against Cal, the passing game had been ineffective in the first half, with Carpenter throwing for only 45 yards. He also fumbled on a sack, and the Golden Bears returned the ball for a touchdown.

So what did Erickson do when the Sun Devils took possession at their own 9-yard line early in the third quarter? He went to the air.

Throwing from his own end zone, Carpenter completed a 19-yard strike to Chris McGaha, then connected with Rudy Burgess for 20 yards.

Two plays later, Carpenter hit Mike Jones for 31 yards, giving ASU the ball at Cal's 17. Four runs later, the Sun Devils scored to take a 21-20 lead, and they never looked back.

Carpenter, who is 19-7 as a starter, sprained the thumb on his throwing hand colliding with tailback Keegan Herring on Saturday night. Erickson expects Carpenter to play against Oregon.

"He's fine," Erickson said on Sunday. "He's got a little swelling in his throwing thumb but he should be ready to practice on Tuesday."

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