Princeton, N.J. — You can't do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.
For two straight years, Penn football’s reluctance to make changes at the quarterback position has embodied that narrative. And Saturday’s 42-14 loss at No. 9 Princeton might have been the worst example yet.
I’m far from the first writer at the Daily Pennsylvanian to suggest that it’s time to play junior Nick Robinson more. But after what we’ve seen from the Red and Blue — not just Saturday afternoon, but throughout the entire 2017 and 2018 seasons — I should be the last.
If you haven’t read the recap of Saturday’s game, here’s an abridged summary: Penn went down 21-0 in the first half after not being able to move the ball at all in sophomore quarterback Ryan Glover’s three drives, Robinson threw touchdown passes on both of his first two drives to make it a one-score game, then Penn still insisted on switching the two as the Tigers went on to pull away.
No, I don’t think Penn would have won if Robinson played the whole game. Princeton was one of the best, if not the single best, Ivy League football team since the conference moved to Division I-AA in 1982. (It’s that the Tigers won’t get the chance to see how they would stack up in the FCS playoffs, but that’s an argument for a different day.)
But, even if the Quakers wouldn’t have upset the Tigers with Robinson in the backfield all day, we saw a recipe that we’ve seen over and over again for the past 20 games.
In Robinson's first game in a Penn uniform, Penn trailed 7-0 to Division II Ohio Dominican when he threw a 59-yard touchdown on his first attempt. He threw two passes the rest of the day.
After Penn went down 21-0 to Central Connecticut State in 2017 following two interceptions in the first quarter from then-senior Will Fischer-Colbrie, Robinson came in and threw three second quarter touchdowns. He remained on the bench when the team lost to Columbia seven days later.
When Fischer-Colbrie threw four interceptions in last year’s season finale against Cornell, Penn finally went to Robinson when trailing 22-21 in the fourth quarter, and the then-sophomore led a fantastic seven-minute drive to win the game.
This year, the name ahead of him on the depth chart changed, but the storyline largely remained the same.
It’s not fair to say Robinson was perfect this season. But whether you look at the late touchdown drive he provided at Dartmouth, the way he revived a stagnant offense in a surprisingly close 13-7 win at Brown, or, of course, the momentum shift he produced today, the formula has been the same: Penn’s offense struggles with its starting quarterback, Robinson comes in for brief spurts and inarguably outplays the starter, and Robinson remains the backup when the next week comes around.
Independent of the QB situation, this was Penn’s worst team of coach Ray Priore’s four-year tenure. Penn won an Ivy championship in both 2015 and 2016, and considering that last year’s three conference losses were by a combined 11 points, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that team might have gone 7-0 with Robinson in the backfield. This year, Penn’s four Ivy losses came by an average of 21.5 points, and there’s no individual quarterback who could fix that alone.
But even with all that said, there’s thorough reason to believe the future is bright for this program. A pair of elite running backs will return in juniors Karekin Brooks and Abe Willows. Every starting offensive lineman but senior Tommy Dennis will be back. 13 of the top 18 tacklers are back from a defense that only allowed 20.9 points per game — lowest in Priore’s career — and that doesn’t even account for the potential fifth year of senior safety Sam Philippi.
Two years ago, I wrote that the promotion of Priore was one of the “greatest gifts” Penn football had ever seen, and I still sincerely believe that. Even though the team has finished below expectations in two seasons since, that doesn’t negate all of the progress the program has made since he took over, especially when considering the youth on the field this season.
To Priore’s credit, he did attempt to justify his approach to the QB situation: he said Robinson’s early-season hamstring injury was worse than most people outside the team realized, and that, after it had diminished, he wanted to err on the side of more game experience, which Glover had at that point.
But excuses be damned — it doesn’t take Stephen Hawking to interpret the results we’ve seen. More often than not, the offense scores with Robinson on the field, and doesn’t score when he’s not. Priore can still be the right person for the job and make individual wrong decisions, and that has been the case here.
The bottom line is simple: the Quakers have a very strong core of young talent, and they have potential to reach the pinnacle of the league soon. They just need Priore and his staff to finally get the quarterback situation right to get there.
COLE JACOBSON is a College senior from Los Angeles, Calif., and is a Senior Sports Reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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