Late in the fourth quarter of last fall's annual Coal Bowl, California University of Pennsylvania was in trouble. The visiting Crimson Hawks from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) were lining up for a 30-yard field goal that probably would have iced the game.
Cal had led most of the afternoon, but gave up 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Now, with 63 seconds left, more than 6,100 fans at Cal's Adamson Stadium watched nervously as IUP looked to increase its lead to 10 points.
It was a warm and windy September day in Western Pennsylvania, with the temperature reaching 70 degrees and winds blowing at 20 miles per hour. When IUP sophomore Brett Ullman booted the kick, a gust of wind passed through the stadium, and his ball sailed wide left.
Coach Mike Kellar's Cal team had been given new life. Kellar walked over to his senior quarterback, Peter Lalich, with a simple message:
“There's not a quarterback in the country I'd rather have right now than you.”
Four years earlier, in front of 10 times as many people, Lalich was starting as a sophomore for Virginia when the Cavaliers welcomed second-ranked USC to Charlottesville.
A highly recruited prep star from Springfield, Va., Lalich turned down scholarship offers from Michigan and Miami to attend his home state school. Lalich was hailed as the future of the program, and in 2007 he was the first true freshman to play quarterback for the Cavaliers in a decade.
Then in the summer of 2008, after his freshman season, Lalich was charged with unlawful purchase and possession of alcohol. The case dragged on into the 2008 season, but Lalich got the start for the first game of the year, a 52-7 drubbing at the hands of the Trojans, and the second, a 16-0 victory over Richmond.
In a court hearing on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008, Lalich admitted to violating his probation by drinking alcohol, and later that day he was kicked off the team.
"I kind of knew, but I didn't really know that all the eyes were on me all the time,” Lalich told ThePostGame of his time at Virginia. "I was just doing what all the other kids were doing. But you can't do that, you can't have both."
After leaving Virginia, Lalich began an improbable odyssey, but it's one that could lead to the NFL. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he always had the body that NFL teams crave in a quarterback, but his off-the-field decisions left many wondering whether he could ever be a legitimate pro prospect. Further complicating matters was the fact that after leaving Charlottesville, Lalich's fortunes would get worse before they got better.
Virginia coach Al Groh recommended Lalich check out Oregon State, which was coached by a friend, Mike Riley. Before Riley even had a chance to call Lalich, the quarterback and his mother, Penny, had made the trip to Corvallis.
Riley spoke extensively with Lalich, and he also called Groh to get a second opinion. Despite Lalich’s history at Virginia, Groh was unequivocal in his recommendation.
"Al told me the story,” Riley told the Oregonian in 2008. "and I asked him point-blank. If you were me, would you consider this. And he said yes."
The transition happened incredibly quickly. Within a month Lalich had gone from starting for Virginia against mighty USC to sitting in his room some 2,700 miles away, watching his former teammates on television.
Lalich said that term was the emotional low point for him, and it showed. Coaches noticed his poor attitude, and Riley began having second thoughts. But Lalich turned things around both on and off the field, picking up straight A's in the spring of 2009 and having a solid performance in the spring football game.
Due to NCAA transfer rules, Lalich had to redshirt the 2009 season. But he still competed with Ryan Katz for practice reps and the second-string label behind senior Sean Canfield. Less than a year after transferring, Lalich had impressed his teammates by mastering Oregon State's offense.
"He's one of the smartest X's and O's quarterbacks I've been around," Canfield told the Oregonian before the 2009 season.
With Canfield gone in 2010, Lalich and Katz were in a bonafide competition for the starting spot.
But on May 7, 2010, Lalich and some friends were at the popular Oregon State getaway Lake Shasta when Lalich was nailed with a boating DUI. Not only did Lalich face a three-game suspension, it had become clear that Katz had the upper hand for the starting spot.
For the second time in less than two years, Lalich dropped out of school.
A series of connections led Lalich to California University of Pennsylvania, a D-II school 35 miles south of Pittsburgh with an enrollment of around 9,500. The school has become somewhat of a haven for D-I transfers, and in recent years quarterbacks Josh Portis and Kevin McCabe have landed in the NFL after successful careers at Cal.
When he first got to Cal, Lalich roomed with cornerback Mike Brown, a former teammate at Virginia who had also been kicked off the team. Lalich redshirted in 2010 and finished his degree in Liberal Arts. He says the school's smaller feel and lowered expectations helped his transition.
"It definitely helped to just blend in a little bit easier," Lalich said.
When Lalich took the field as the Vulcans' starter for their 2011 season opener against St. Cloud State (Minn.), it was his first time playing in a competitive environment in three years. Lalich had a solid game, completing 20-of-34 passes for 150 yards and no interceptions, but Cal got hammered by St. Cloud State, 26-3.
Things picked up for Lalich and the Vulcans after that, and the team won 10 of its next 12 games with Lalich setting the single-season school record with 3,725 passing yards.
It was Lalich’s most successful season since his senior year of high school.
"I just needed to be able play extensively to get my feel for the game back,” Lalich said.
Going into his senior season at Cal, Lalich was a pre-season All-American. Kellar, who took over for veteran coach John Luckhardt following the 2011 campaign, thought the Vulcans might be able to produce the best season in school history.
Cal got off to a hot start in 2012, winning its first three games. Lalich was spectacular, averaging about 330 yards in each contest and tossing a total of eight touchdowns.
In week four Cal welcomed undefeated and 12-ranked IUP to Adamson Stadium. Behind a pair of Lalich touchdown passes, the Vulcans took a 14-10 into the locker rooms at halftime. IUP stormed back to take the lead in the second half, and with 1:03 left the Crimson Hawks looked to increase their advantage to 10 points.
But Ullman's kick missed the uprights, and Lalich led his team onto the field needing a touchdown. On the Vulcans' first play from scrimmage after the missed field goal, Lalich lined up in the shotgun and took a three-step drop after receiving the snap. He was flushed left, and after a few hurried steps he tossed a 50-yard bomb down the left sideline to receiver Nadir Brown, who beat his man and sprinted into the end zone for a score.
Cal missed the extra point, meaning the Vulcans would have to recover the ensuing onside kick. They did just that, giving Lalich the ball back at the IUP 44-yard-line with 51 seconds left. Lalich completed three of his next four passes, bringing Cal to the IUP 13-yard-line. Kicker Cody Nuzzo nailed the ensuing field goal, and Cal pulled out the improbable win.
Lalich finished the game with 438 passing yards, the second highest single-game total in school history, to go along with three touchdowns. His improbable story, from program savior to two-time dropout, had taken one more turn: Veritable hero.
"There's no one who I’d rather have in that situation,” Kellar said, "other than Peter."
Lalich’s reputation as a brainy player followed him to Cal, where he would spend late nights diagramming plays on the grease board in Kellar’s office.
Along with his physical attributes, Lalich's unique understanding of the game should help him as he meets with NFL teams.
"He's a bit of a football savant, he eats, sleeps and drinks football,” Kellar said. “He's fascinated by the X's and O's of the game."
Lalich has been working out at Bommarito Performance Systems in Miami Beach in advance of his March 11 Pro Day at Cal as well as the Baltimore regional combine on March 23. But Lalich knows that even if he shows off an arm like John Elway and a mind like Peyton Manning, many teams will still wonder whether he'll be a liability off the field.
Lalich says he has nothing to hide.
"I'll just tell them that I made mistakes, and I've learned from them," he said. "I'll tell them that they don't have to worry about me getting in trouble because I’ve matured a lot since those issues."
In looking back on his time at Virginia, Lalich says he probably wasn't mature enough to handle the weight of the enormous expectations. But he knows that if he had slipped through the cracks and continued on a destructive path, he might not have been in the position he's in today.
"I wish I was a little more mature about how I handled myself," Lalich says. "But at the same time I wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t get in trouble. I’m glad that I learned my lesson and I’m smarter about things now."
Few people have a better perspective than Kellar, who saw Lalich mature from a talented youngster into an NFL prospect. Kellar says that at 24 years old, Lalich is ready to begin his second act anew.
"The two years I was with him, I trusted our offense with him,” Kellar said. "He was in my office more than I was. I've got a daughter who’s a sophomore, I would trust them together ... Has he messed up at Virginia and Oregon State? Yeah, that's well documented. Everyone knows what happened. But I think that was a different kid."