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Senior Will Fischer-Colbrie struggles to find space as the Lions' defense swarmed the quarterback all game long.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

Penn football had one massive question mark entering their season: quarterback.

Halfway through, it remains the team’s largest weakness and unresolved problem.

After the Dartmouth game, I was optimistic about Will Fischer-Colbrie. I argued that the team around him didn’t play well enough to win. For Fischer-Colbrie to have success as a starter, his play-makers needed to do better than they did against Dartmouth.

Now they have, but the result was the same. This time, the loss is on him.

In the first half, despite the seven-point lead, Penn struggled to sustain drives. Fischer-Colbrie missed open receivers on multiple occasions – overthrowing running back Tre Solomon and wide receiver Tyler Herrick to name just two. Many of those plays could have resulted in touchdowns on a good throw. 

The skill players around the first-year starter made plays – Justin Watson was his usual self, sophomore Tyler Herrick was stellar as a replacement for the injured Christian Pearson, and the tag-team duo of sophomore Karekin Brooks and Solomon made some key plays on the ground. Their quarterback let them down.

The second half started perfectly for the Quakers. The defense did their job and then some, notching five sacks and even scoring a touchdown of their own. Yes, they got burnt at the very end of the game, but they had been on the field for almost the entire second half. The offense needed to help their defense, but they struggled to keep the ball, let alone embark on a long drive.

Will Fischer-Colbrie ended the game with three turnovers — all of which came in the second half. As coach Ray Priore noted after the game, it is incredibly hard to win when you can’t hold onto the ball. Fischer-Colbrie’s interceptions both came inside Penn’s 40-yard line, essentially gifting Columbia 14 points to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.

The first interception came on an attempted screen pass. Good quarterbacks don’t get intercepted on three-yard dump offs. 

Even Priore pointed out a few of his quarterback's errors, noting that Fischer-Colbrie tried to do too much where a wiser, more experienced quarterback would have taken the sack.

The second interception came when Fischer-Colbrie missed Solomon by about five yards. Priore mentioned in the quarterback's defense that he was hit as he threw, but that was a throw that Penn needed the senior to make.

Fischer-Colbrie’s moment of redemption came on a game-tying 80-yard drive. The senior made several good throws, including a beautiful 17-yard touchdown pass to Justin Watson. That drive was what Penn was waiting for the entire second half. While the Quakers would have liked more than one isolated incident of magic from their quarterback, Fischer-Colbrie, to his credit, did deliver in the moment of highest need.

The biggest issue with Fischer-Colbrie’s continued struggles has been the performance of his back-up. Sophomore Nick Robinson has scored five touchdowns in very limited time under center. Robinson hasn’t been perfect either, but there is a strong argument to be made that he represents the Quakers' best chance to win, both now and in the future.

Tellingly, Priore has had multiple opportunities to make the change to Robinson permanently but has opted to return to Fischer-Colbrie every time. After the senior’s performance against Central Connecticut State, casual observers might have assumed that Robinson would be given the call against Columbia. By my estimation, Fischer-Colbrie has had about three last chances. Robinson hasn’t even gotten a second one.

Generally, there is a reason coaches do what they do. Priore certainly has a better knowledge of his team than I do. Fischer-Colbrie hasn’t been all bad, but quarterbacks have been, and regularly are, benched for better performances. Priore did mention in the post-game press conference that he could have put in Robinson after Fischer-Colbrie's second interception, but it would have been unwise to throw in a new player with just four minutes left.

At the end of the day, football is a team sport. One play here or there would have resulted in the opposite result. That’s just the nature of the game. You would be reading a much different column if Fischer-Colbrie had connected on one of those open plays in the first half. The same applies if the defense made one more spectacular play to win the game.

That didn’t happen, and here we are. Penn is winless in the Ivy League. Whatever slim title chances the Quakers had after the Dartmouth game have been snuffed out.

Priore has shied away from calling Penn's situation a quarterback controversy. He insisted instead that it was merely a quarterback competition. 

Now there is no doubt.