Erich Klemme saw the football on the ground and immediately reverted to his daily scoop-and-score routine.
The Cal Poly defensive line — a much deeper unit than it was a year ago — works on a drill in every practice where defenders grab a loose ball as if they’re picking up a fumble to run it back for a touchdown.
Only, this wasn’t practice on Saturday. It was late in No. 23 Cal Poly’s 22-21 Great West Conference win over North Dakota (2-5, 0-3 Great West), and Klemme did not score after the scoop.
After Mustangs linebacker Max Schulz sacked Fighting Sioux quarterback Jake Landry and knocked the ball loose on third-and-13 from the North Dakota 43, the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive tackle, all alone, knelt down for the recovery.
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“I saw the bright lights,” said Klemme, who promptly fumbled the ball right back before defensive end Kyle Murphy jumped on it at the 21 for Cal Poly (5-3, 1-1 Great West) to set up Jake West’s 22-yard game-winning field goal.
“It’s very few times that I actually get to touch the ball, so I thought to make the most of it. I’m just thankful Kyle Murphy got the ball back.”
Klemme, who Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh described as possibly the best player on the team coming into the season, was easy to forgive — and not just because the narrow victory over the Fighting Sioux may have kept Cal Poly’s slim playoff hopes intact after a bitter 20-7 loss at Southern Utah last week.
The play of Klemme, who had three tackles, a pass breakup and a sack of his own, plus that of the rest of the defensive line, ended up sealing the victory a year after they shouldered the blame for a deflating loss at North Dakota.
West’s field goal to end the third quarter Saturday was backed by three fourth-quarter sacks from a defensive line that was in Landry’s face all night. Cal Poly tallied six sacks in all, racked up nine tackles for loss and was credited with six hurries.
A year after Landry spurred a 31-17 Fighting Sioux win with 92 rushing yards and a touchdown, the North Dakota quarterback finished with a net of minus-14 on the ground.
Tempered by an untimely unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, defensive end Gavin Cooper led the way with five tackles, two sacks and three hurries.
“Our defensive line is one of the real strengths of our football team,” Walsh said. “Last week, they were the only group we singled out and said they played well. And tonight they echoed it.
“Last year, you remember how well that guy ran the ball against us, and we did a much better job of containing him, putting a lot of pressure on him, and I think we’re improving on defense because the defensive line can play like that.”
The biggest reason why the group couldn’t play like that last year was depth.
In the North Dakota game in particular, the first of a four-game losing streak to end the season, defensive tackle James Chen was out, leaving Klemme and Kevin Hess to take most of the snaps on the interior.
Former Nipomo High standout Korben Boaz, who was only around 250 pounds and a redshirt freshman at the time, was activated on the travel roster to fill out the depth chart.
Without many options, the line tired and ended up allowing 238 rushing yards to the Fighting Sioux, who scored 17 unanswered points in the second half.
“It was the most tired I’ve ever been,” Klemme said. “I can particularly remember that game, and I’ve never been more tired than that. I think I played almost every single snap, and there was about four or five of us. It was rough. It makes a difference to have a lot of good guys that can step in at any time.”
Depth has been key to the defensive line’s resurgence this year. Cal Poly lost seniors Ryan Shotwell and pass rushing linebacker Carlton Gillespie, the two most prolific sack artists on the team in the past few seasons, but they were replaced in greater numbers.
Cooper, who missed all of last year with a shoulder injury, has been the most consistent pass rushing threat this season. He and Hess share the team lead with three sacks.
Klemme and Chen have 2 1/2 sacks apiece.
Former Atascadero High standout Brandon Roberts has a sack in each of the past two games, and Cal Poly has also gotten immediate contributions from transfers Murphy, Matt Singletary and redshirt freshman Sullivan Grosz.
The defense has 19 sacks total to this point, which is two more than all of last season with three more games to go.
“It’s about eight or nine of us that keep rotating,” Klemme said. “We have fresh bodies in there, and I felt like toward the end of the game, we were able to keep fresh and they were just wearing.
“We rallied together as a group and told ourselves we’re not going to let this happen, what happened last year. As a unit, we told ourselves we’re not going to lose this game. At that point, we went out and made a statement, got the momentum back and carried it through the game.”