Unlikely Pac-10 Leaders Square Off

Coach Dennis Erickson and Arizona State are ready to stake their claim on a BCS bowl. The No. 4 Sun Devils play at sixth-ranked Oregon on Saturday.
Coach Dennis Erickson and Arizona State are ready to stake their claim on a BCS bowl. The No. 4 Sun Devils play at sixth-ranked Oregon on Saturday. (By Rob Schumacher -- Associated Press)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

EUGENE, Ore., Oct. 28-- One day after experiencing what Southern California Coach Pete Carroll dubbed a "championship" atmosphere, students on this idyllic Oregon campus began preparing for an even bigger matchup next weekend.

Granted, Louisiana State's visit to Alabama, which matches Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban against the team he led to a national championship, offers the weekend's juiciest story line. But the matchup between undefeated Arizona State and once-beaten Oregon carries the most significant national championship implications.

On Saturday, Autzen Stadium hosted a matchup between two top 10 teams -- Oregon and USC -- for the first time in its 40-year history. Next Saturday, nearly 60,000 fans will pack the stadium to watch an unlikely meeting of two schools ranked among the top five in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

Neither school was ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 25. But after the season's first two months, both No. 4 Oregon and No. 6 Arizona State are in contention for the national championship.

"We still have a lot to prove," Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said following a 24-17 victory over USC. "And I think we are ready to prove it."

After Arizona State rallied to defeat California, 31-20, Sun Devils quarterback Rudy Carpenter told reporters: "It is big because people keep doubting us. We never doubted ourselves. Our confidence keeps growing and our swagger keeps getting bigger."

The Sun Devils are nothing if not dramatic. They overcame a 13-0 first-quarter deficit Saturday, which marked the third time this season that they have rallied from a double-digit deficit at home.

Arizona State overcame a 14-0 deficit against Colorado on Sept. 8 and trailed Oregon State 19-0 on Sept. 22 before rallying. On Saturday, Arizona State shut out Cal in the second half.

"We know how to deal with that adversity," Carpenter said. "We know how to come back. The most important thing is that coaches make good second-half adjustments for us and give us a chance to exploit what is going on on defense."

Saturday's come-from-behind victory also marked the Sun Devils' first win against a ranked team this season. With the victory against California, first-year Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson moved into second place on the list of best starts (8-0) in Pacific-10 history. Stanford's Charles Taylor started 9-0 in 1951.

Oregon's lone loss, on the other hand, came against California on Sept. 29, when Ducks wide receiver Cameron Colvin fumbled trying to reach the ball into the end zone in the final seconds. Cal was awarded possession and preserved a 31-24 victory.

"That loss in some aspects was so great for us because it made us so hungry," Oregon linebacker John Bacon said. "It made us not want to lose again."

Led by quarterback Dennis Dixon, the Ducks' offense has thrived despite a rash of injuries to key playmakers in recent weeks. On Saturday, however, the unsung defense played an integral role in the victory. Safety Matthew Harper intercepted two passes, including one in the final seconds at the Oregon 15 to stymie a last-ditch USC drive.

"We played championship defense," Harper said.

The seven-point victory was USC's worst conference loss in the Carroll era, which says as much about USC's recent dominance as it does about the altered landscape in the Pac-10 this season.

Preseason favorites California and USC have a combined five conference losses. Arizona State (8-0, 5-0) and Oregon (7-1, 4-1) are among only three schools -- UCLA the other -- with fewer than two conference losses.

But next week's showdown at Autzen will produce a clear front-runner in the conference and a trendy national title contender.

"As far as BCS," Oregon's Bacon said, "that's something we're not letting enter our mind right now."

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