The sun devil painted on the 50-yard line of Arizona State's field is presumably supposed to be menacing, a dark figure with a sharp pitchfork and the intent to use it. But upon closer examination he's more cartoonish, a mischievous-looking guy who's not as tough as he's trying to look. Until last Saturday the same seemed to be true of the real-life Sun Devils, whose perfect record appeared to be mostly a product of a schedule that was softer than a featherbed. But after Arizona State's 31-20 victory over No. 21 California, it's hard to dismiss the Sun Devils as just a desert mirage.
Though Arizona State (8-0, 5-0 in the Pac-10) aced its first true test, there are greater challenges to come, beginning with this Saturday's game at No. 4 Oregon. The No. 6 Sun Devils head to Eugene with the confidence that comes from being undefeated and no longer untested. "It's probably going to change the way people think about us," first-year coach Dennis Erickson said of the victory over Cal. "And it might even change the way we think about ourselves." Before last Saturday, Arizona State's victories had come against opponents with a combined record of 20-31. When quarterback Rudy Carpenter was asked last week about the doubters who dismissed his team because of its schedule, he said, "It's tough to argue with them."
But the Sun Devils made a fine argument against Cal (5-3), beating the Bears with the same formula they've used most of the season -- a productive ground game (Keegan Herring rushed for 96 yards, and Dimitri Nance added 85); efficient passing from Carpenter, who was 17 of 29 for 219 yards and a touchdown; and second-half dominance. Arizona State shut out Cal 17-0 after halftime; overall the Sun Devils have outscored their opponents 153-29 in the final two quarters.
That's largely due to the halftime adjustments of Erickson, 59, who has become a beloved figure in Tempe, in contrast to the bitter feelings he left in his wake when he bolted Idaho last December after only 10 months. Hired by the Vandals following an unsuccessful stint with the San Francisco 49ers, Erickson indicated he planned to make Idaho, where he first became a head coach 25 years ago, the final stop of his career. Then he abruptly left. The headline of a Seattle Post-Intelligencer column that was highly critical of his departure read, DESERT PERFECT PLACE FOR THIS SNAKE. Says Erickson, "I'm at the point in my career where you don't know if you'll ever get another chance like this."
Erickson has a history of success on the college level -- Arizona State will be the fourth school, joining Washington State, Miami and Oregon State, that he has taken to a bowl game -- but not even the most optimistic Sun Devils fan could have expected him to have the team in contention for a national title a year after it finished 7-6. Most notably, Erickson's simplification of the playbook has helped straighten out Carpenter, whose confidence and passer efficiency rating plummeted last year after a strong 2005.
"People have been sleeping on us," says Nance. That's literally true because the team's Saturday-night home games finish when much of the country is already in bed. But now that the Sun Devils have their first win over a ranked team since 2004, they have to be included in any discussion about national championship contenders. Consider this your wake-up call.