- Elizabeth Merrill
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- The emotions of the night had finally gotten to him, and 60-year-old Dennis Erickson grabbed Sparky's pitch fork and drove it into the ground. There. How's that for a statement? Weeks passed, Arizona State climbed up the polls, and seven wins elicited more collective eye rolls than respect.
"People keep doubting us," Sun Devils quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. "We never doubted ourselves."
On a wild night when metal gates collapsed under the crush of students rushing the field, the Sun Devils lived up to their No. 4 BCS ranking with a 31-20 win over California. They'd finally knocked off their first ranked team of the season, finally beaten Cal for the first time in five years.
And the celebration lingered into Sunday. Fans feebly tried to tear down the goal posts, and surrounded anyone in maroon. Even Rudy Carpenter, who dodged linebackers and picked himself off the grass after so many hits Saturday night, had a hard time escaping. He dashed onto a crowded elevator, stared at the ceiling, tapped his head against the wall and smiled.
"We just wanted a chance to go out there and show everybody we could play with anybody," he said. "Our confidence keeps growing, and our swagger keeps getting bigger."
The Sun Devils, one of five remaining unbeaten teams, calmly pulled out their eighth victory the same way they've been winning for much of the year -- from behind. They trailed 13-0 in the first quarter, and Carpenter amassed just 26 yards in the first half.
It was familiar territory. The Sun Devils had fallen behind by double-digit scores against Colorado and Oregon State, and beat Washington State with a field goal in the final minute. They'd watched Cal quarterback Nate Longshore throw for 213 yards in the first half when Carpenter decided it was time to pick his game up.
His first series of the game, he scrambled, bumped into one of his linemen, and was sacked for a 7-yard loss. The next one, he was sacked and stripped and Cameron Jordan scooped the ball up and ran in for a 13-yard touchdown.
But this is where the Sun Devils seemingly feel most comfortable, as the underdogs.
"It's not all that much fun in the first quarter, to be honest with you," Erickson said, "but our guys believe."
The Golden Bears were banking on their own ability to bounce back. They were ranked second in the country mere weeks ago, but then Longshore hurt his ankle and Cal's season came unspooled. He was on target for much of the first two quarters, but threw two interceptions in the second half that dropped a Cal team with national championship hopes to sixth place in the Pac-10.
"People will say Cal came in here with a two-game losing streak," Carpenter said, addressing the doubters. "I don't think people realize how good Cal is."
The first half threatened to drag on longer than "The Thorn Birds" when DeSean Jackson fielded Thomas Weber's punt, was twisted into the grass and fumbled with just over a minute to go. The Sun Devils eventually pounced on the ball, triggering a series of tape reviews, changed minds and eventual boos.
Jackson was initially ruled down on the play, but after a short meeting, the ruling changed to a fumble. A longer conference followed, and the play was eventually whistled dead.
Erickson was fuming. His team could've had the ball at the Cal 10. It eventually wouldn't matter.
Carpenter connected on passes of 19, 20 and 35 yards on his first series of the second half, and Arizona State took a 21-20 lead with 10:03 to go in the third quarter. He took a number of poundings after he released the ball, and clutched his hand in pain when he was smacked by teammate Keegan Herring on an exchange.
Erickson said Carpenter had a sprained thumb; he didn't leave the game.
And he didn't seem to skip a beat. Erickson called him a warrior.
The Golden Bears eventually called it a night.
"They are a great football team," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said, "and they came out and proved it."
Saturday night's scene almost seemed strange in the context of Arizona State's schedule. As fans tried to tear down the goal posts and dodge security officers, thoughts of next week's game against No. 5 Oregon no doubt filled the Sun Devils' heads.
"It's not going to change anything," linebacker Robert James said. "We're going to practice this week like this game depends on our season. Like we've got to win this game or the season's over."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arizona State entered its first Pac-10 test with an unblemished record and plenty of skeptics. After a convincing second half, the Sun Devils retained their perfect record and may have gained a few believers.