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Charlie Brewer’s Morgantown Nightmare

Baylor’s passing game has a fatal flaw

NCAA Football: Baylor at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday night, Charlie Brewer got benched after completing three times as many passes to the West Virginia Mountaineers as to the Baylor Bears. In what is undoubtedly the worst game of his career, Brewer went 1-8 for 22 yards with 3 interceptions. How bitterly coincidental that this kind of game would come against the very team that launched Brewer’s coming out party a season ago. That is the stuff of Morgantown and nightmares.

The sideline report after halftime was that Brewer wasn’t benched for his play - he was being evaluated for injury. Of course, further reporting indicated that Brewer wasn’t complaining about any injury at all. The coaches just figured, given how badly things were going, that Brewer must be injured, even if he shows no physical signs. Perhaps that is true, but it sounds to me like the coaches were trying to save their quarterback some dignity. If Brewer did get injured, it sure is hard to think of when it could have happened.

What, then, is the explanation for such poor play? Brewer has been a reliable quarterback since he first became a starter. Before the WVU game, he was completing 62% of his passes, tallied nearly 2,000 yards in 7 games, and totaled 10 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions. He had a passer rating of 134.7, good for 6th in the Big XII. Thus far this season, Brewer has been a perfectly respectable Big XII quarterback. He is a good decision maker and frisky in the pocket avoiding pressure. Going into the game, even if you thought WVU would be able to get after him, Brewer often seems more comfortable rolling outside than standing tall and passing over the line.

West Virginia presented a different sort of challenge, though, and one that seems to exacerbate Brewer’s biggest weakness: arm strength. Coming into Thursday’s game, Baylor ranked 23rd nationally in Football Outsiders’ success rate statistic but only 95th in there explosiveness measure (IsoPPP+). That describes an offense that is methodical without being dynamic. Brewer has been excellent at hitting his receivers on the run or over the middle for 7-15 yard gains. Anecdotally, however, Brewer hardly ever attempts to make a big play down field. Everything comes underneath, in the middle of the field, or on the edge after a scramble. Brewer just doesn’t have the arm strength to push the ball down the field.

Not all of the limitations are on Brewer’s arm, of course. The receivers have not always been capable of separating from their man. When they do, however, Brewer often under throws them or the receiver, inexplicably, drops a catchable ball. All of this is confirmed by Jalan McClendon’s occasional appearances. When McClendon is in the game, he is throwing the ball deep seemingly every second play, whether receivers are open or not. He leaves it up to them to make a play against their defender in tight coverage. As with Brewer, however, the WRs too frequently drop passes when McClendon does find them open.

The fatal flaw of the 2018 Baylor offense is this: Brewer is a highly efficient, short-range passer with a receiving corp built for deep throws while having suspect hands. Baylor’s two most embarrassing offensive showings (the first half against Duke and the first half against West Virginia) came when the weaknesses of the quarterback and receivers converged. Brewer needs those short-to-intermediate completions to succeed, and if the receivers bobble or drop open passes, Baylor’s offense won’t be able to adjust.

West Virginia’s defense seemed to figure that out. The Mountaineer’s defensive plan seemed to key around all of Brewer’s tendencies and limitations. Early in the game Baylor tried to neutralize WVU’s aggressive defense by using zone-read. It had some success, too, with JaMycal Hasty’s first two carries gaining decent yards. The problem was, though, that West Virginia actually seemed content to let Hasty take those yards. Their plan was to make sure Brewer didn’t make plays with his feet no matter what, and so even when Brewer handed the ball off on the first zone-read play, the Mountaineer defender was committed to tagging Brewer with a hit. Brewer, an excellent scrambler, earned only 3 yards on his longest run of the night. That was no accident.

Neither was the fact that there seemed to be about two dozen defenders in the middle of the field every time Brewer threw a pass there. West Virginia wanted to take away the middle of the field while simultaneously rushing Brewer from multiple angles. They gambled that even if their cornerbacks were left on an island with Baylor’s receivers, Brewer couldn’t make them pay downfield. Thus, when Denzel Mims bobbled an easy catch, it became an interception. And when Brewer overthrew Jalen Hurd coming across the middle, that was intercepted, too. And when Brewer threw behind Hasty, that got picked off. All three interceptions came in the middle of the field, a place where Brewer has typically been excellent. WVU’s pressure with the pass rush and crowding of that part of the field heavily contributed to Brewer’s struggles.

The confluence of all these things (Brewer’s inability to go downfield, the receivers’ proclivity to drop passes, and West Virginia’s determination to crowd the middle of the field) led to what will undoubtedly be the stuff of Charlie’s nightmares for weeks to come.