Ted Kwalick saved the game and Penn State's 1968 undefeated season
Editor's Note: This is the third in a six-part series highlighting the 1968-69 Penn State football teams who are celebrating their silver anniversary reunion. The first part focuses on tight end Ted Kwalick.
Ted Kwalick was already an All-American, already one of the top players in college football, already a star, when he made the play that probably defined his career as a Nittany Lion.
The 5-0 Lions had just seen their lead whittled to 22-17 by Army with a little over 2 minutes remaining. As the the Cadets lined up for an onside kick the Lions' first undefeated season hung in the balance.
The Army kicker booted a perfect onside kick that bounced toward the Penn State line. Linebacker Charlie Zapiec tried to fall on the ball but was hit by the Army team. The ball then squirted through Dave Bradley's legs where Kwalick picked it up and scampered 53 yards for a touchdown.
"We practiced that play," Coach Joe Paterno would joke after the game. "Bradley would kick it around then kick it to Kwalick who would run for the touchdown."
The touchdown sealed the 28-24 homecoming win and preserved the Lions undefeated season.
Going into the 1968 season the 6-foot-4, 230 pound tight end was the Lions' only real legitimate star. While Charlie Pittman, Mike Reid and others would develop into great players, Kwalick, a senior, was aleady a great player.
No. 82 was the mainstay in the Lions' offense. In 1967, Kwalick hauled in 33 passes for 563 yards and four touchdowns and was named to numerous All-American teams.
So, entering the 1968 season, Kwalick was the Lions go-to player.
But Kwalick got off to a slow start in 1968. Three games into the season the bruising tight end had only caught six passes for a mere 70 yards.
Kwalick had no one to blame but himself for not catching more passes. After all, it was Kwalick's blocking that was at least partly responsible for his lack of receptions. Behind his blocking and the running of Pittman the Lions were moving the ball easily on the ground and didn't need to open up the passing game.
"We threw the ball enough to win," Kwalick said. "We threw it when we had to. We relied on our defense and our kicking game. But we also had confidence in our offense."
Paterno found another way to get Kwalick into the offense.
Extra attention by opposing defenses left him covered most of the time, but the defenses couldn't figure out how to defend Kwalick as a runner. The Lions began using the tight end as a runner, giving the ball to him seven times in the first three games. Kwalick picked up 53 yards on the end arounds adding another facet to the already potent Lions.
The ever conservative Paterno wasn't worried about Kwalick not catching many passes. The Lions were thoroughly dominating teams on defense and with the running game there was no need to throw the ball.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's still an All-American, the best tight end in college football," Paterno would say. "Guys go and scout our games and they return and say, 'the guy we have to stop is Kwalick,' so they might put extra coverage on him."
While Kwalick would get off to a slow start he wouldn't finish that way, even though he was looking at double and triple coverage. In the last eight games Kwalick would snare 25 passes for over 330 yards.
He capped off his final campaign with a six catches, 74-yard effort in the Lions' thrilling 15-14 Orange Bowl win over Kansas.
After his senior season Kwalick was a consensus all-American, the first two-time all-American in Penn State history.
Kwalick finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, behind Southern Cal running back O.J. Simpson. Kwalick's fourth-place finish was the highest ever by a tight end. He still ranks as one of only two tight end -- Notre Dame's Ken MacAfee finished third in 1977 -- ever to finish the Heisman voting in the top four.
When Kwalick finished playing his last game in the blue and white on Jan. 1 1969 he was second on Penn State's all-time receiving list with 86 receptions for 1,343 and 10 touchdowns.
His numbers still rank him fifth all-time in catches and yardage in the Lions' history books.
After being selected 16th overall by San Fransico in the NFL draft, Kwalick went on to have a stellar pro career. He played in three Pro Bowls and was a member of the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders in 1976. Kwalick even joined World Football League founder Gary Davidson and became one of the first players to jump to the new league -- he played one year with the Philadelphia Bell in 1977.
In 1989, Kwalick was inducted into the college football hall-of-fame.
But no matter what he accomplished, what most Penn Staters will remember Kwalick for was a botched on-side kick that assured just one of the 22 games that the Lions would win in 1968 and 1969.
"It is amazing that one of the first things Penn Staters say to me is that they remember that on-side kick in the Army game."