TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -- Arizona State (No. 4 BCS, No. 7 AP) has taken an unusual road to national title contention.
The Sun Devils have made a habit of falling behind early, then burying their opponents in the second half.
They followed that script again on Saturday night, spotting California (No. 21 BCS, No. 18 AP) a 13-point first-quarter lead before rallying for a 31-20 victory to remain unbeaten.
"We know how to deal with adversity," Carpenter said.
Arizona State took over first place in the Pac-10 and set up a high-stakes showdown with No. 5 Oregon next week in Eugene -- a game that will have national title implications.
"It's big because people keep doubting us," Carpenter said. "We never doubted ourselves. Our confidence keeps growing and our swagger keeps getting bigger."
Students rushed the field to celebrate ASU's first victory over a ranked opponent this season.
"It was obviously an emotional ride," said first-year coach Dennis Erickson, who improved to 27-15 against the Top 25.
Erickson and his staff have become noted for their halftime adjustments, and they made the right ones on Saturday night as Arizona State shut out the Golden Bears in the second half. The Sun Devils have outscored opponents 153-29 after halftime.
"I knew in the second half that we were going to win this game," Carpenter said.
Nate Longshore threw for 261 yards and a touchdown and also threw two interceptions for the Golden Bears (5-3, 2-3), who dropped their third straight. Cal has plunged from No. 2 in the country to sixth in the conference in 21 days.
"We need to stay together," Cal coach Jeff Tedford. "We need to just evaluate and we need to correct the mistakes and get the thing going in the right direction. We've got to keep working at it. We're not going to give up on it."
The Sun Devils spotted Cal a 13-0 lead after one quarter. The Golden Bears struck first when Rulon Davis sacked Carpenter, forcing a fumble. Freshman Cameron Jordan recovered it and returned the ball 13 yards for a touchdown.
Jordan Kay kicked two field goals, from 41 and 22 yards, to make it 13-0.
No problem. The Sun Devils have been there before.
"It's a 60-minute game," ASU receiver Kyle Williams said. "13-0 in the first quarter means nothing to us."
ASU gave 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.
"We seem to come out early and dominate the game," Erickson said with a snicker. "I don't know what it is with us, but I'll take the last part of it. We keep fighting back and keep making plays."
This time, the rally began with a defensive stop. Arizona State held Cal to a field goal on first-and-goal at the 5 late in the first quarter, and instead of facing a 17-0 deficit, the Sun Devils trailed only 13-0.
The stop inspired the offense, which shook off some early struggles and marched 59 yards on its next possession. Nance scored on an 11-yard run to cut the lead to 13-7 early in the second quarter.
California answered with an 89-yard march. The Bears scored touchdowns on consecutive plays. The first was called back on offensive pass interference on DeSean Jackson, who caught a 22-yarder to make it 20-7 on the next play.
Nance scored again from 2 yards out to make it 20-14 late in the first half. The play capped a 12-play, 65-yard drive, and the Sun Devils gained 45 yards on the ground.
The Sun Devils opened the second half by stopping Cal at midfield, then marching 91 yards in nine plays. On fourth-and-1, Nance scored on an 8-yard run to give ASU a 21-20 lead.
Carpenter had 45 yards passing at halftime and 70 on the scoring drive. He finished with 17-of-29 completions for 219 yards and a touchdown.
The Sun Devils went 67 yards in 10 plays to set up a 47-yard field goal by Thomas Weber, his 15th consecutive successful field goal.
ASU clinched the victory with fourth-quarter interceptions by Justin Tryon and Robert James and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Carpenter to Kyle Williams.
USC athletic director Pat Haden spoke Tuesday about the decision to fire head coach Steve Sarkisian, calling it "very difficult," while also defending his handling of the situation.
Steve Sarkisian has been plagued of late by apparent substance-related circumstances, including arriving to team facilities appearing intoxicated Sunday, according to sources.
Steve Spurrier, the visor-slinging, slick-talking "Head Ball Coach" who is the second-winningest coach in Southeastern Conference history, announced his resignation on Tuesday.
Florida Gators quarterback Will Grier has been suspended for the year after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance found in a supplement, coach Jim McElwain announced Monday.
Tennessee defensive tackle Shy Tuttle will miss the rest of the season with a broken fibula and torn ankle ligament.
Former NFL safety Tyler Sash died from an accidental overdose after mixing two powerful pain medications, and a history of injuries was a contributing factor, a medical examiner said.