As Ohio State prepares to step into the lion’s den that is Happy Valley, they should be keenly aware that Penn State’s defense is once again a formidable unit. Since 2016, the Nittany Lions have finished outside the top-25 in scoring defense just once, and that could be attributed to the awkward, pandemic-shortened 2020 season. They currently sit at No. 20, allowing 18.9 PPG.
Credit to new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, as many (this guy) questioned his ability to pick up where former DC and current Virginia Tech head coach Brent Pry left off. Some coaches are simply meant to be coordinators, and perhaps Diaz is one of them. Sidebar: Remember when Diaz was the HC at Temple for 15 minutes? Tough beat for the Owls, but perhaps to the benefit of former OSU running backs coach Stan Drayton.
At any rate, Diaz has the PSU defense playing fairly well, despite the losses of Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith, Jaquan Brisker, Arnold Ebiketie, and others. Those players helped the Nittany Lions finish 7th in PPG allowed last season, with shutouts of both Indiana and Rutgers. One could have expected a drop-off in performance, but new faces have stepped up, and the elite secondary has maintained their high level of play.
That secondary is a true difference-maker, and because I could not single out just one of the group’s leaders, I was forced to call an audible. Both Joey Porter Jr. and Ji’ayir Brown are among the best individual players in college football at their respective positions.
Combined, this cornerback/safety duo is up there with any other duo in the country — and perhaps better than all of them. They have shared the field since 2020, and each really began to elevate their game(s) during the 2021 season. They have now become leaders, and are showing their eventual replacements the way. Porter Jr. and Brown have played too well for too long (together), so it did not feel right to break them up in a column. They are this week’s first ever co-Defensive Players to Watch.
Starting with Porter Jr. at CB, this son of former NFL All-Pro Joey Porter should also find himself playing on Sunday(s) sooner than later. And don’t just take it from me, because you can find many glowing reviews from both NCAA and NFL talent evaluators. Blessed with Richard Sherman-esque size and above average speed, he has all the physical attributes of a future lockdown corner in the pros — in addition to a tremendous work ethic, according to PSU coaches. But oddly enough, if you only looked at box scores, you would never understand the hoopla surrounding this fourth-year defensive back.
That is because Porter Jr. is not a traditional stat guy. In 30 career games for the Nittany Lions, he has only has one interception! Even more surprising, is that he has “only” been credited with 20 pass breakups according to sports-reference, but 11 have come this season. The Thorpe Award candidate tallied 6 PBU during the first three weeks alone.
That pace has slowed, as teams are hesitant to throw in his direction, but his impact on PSU’s defense is still palpable. Similar to OSU’s Jeff Okudah, Porter Jr. does not need to intercept passes to make his presence known (or felt). He is able to blanket one side of the field by himself and/or handcuff the opponent’s top receiver, forcing those teams to play offense with only 50-75 percent of the field available to them.
Porter Jr. will now be tasked with the unenviable chore of covering Ohio State wide receivers. And he is likely to face two, three, or four of them throughout Saturday’s game. Because at 6-foot-2, the Penn State CB is an outside/boundary player. He is perfectly capable of going over the middle, but he rarely (if ever) sees the slot. That could ultimately work to the Buckeyes’ advantage, as I believe all of their WR can operate efficiently from the slot if called upon. But Porter Jr. will have an impact, there is no doubt in my mind. He will make life just a little more difficult for C.J. Stroud and his receivers, and may even be a constant thought in the back of the OSU QB’s mind. He is that good.
The other star in this PSU secondary is safety Ji’Ayir Brown. Originally an underrated recruit and two-year JuCo player, he worked his way up to the FCS level and has been a dynamic playmaker for James Franklin’s team. Unlike Porter Jr., Brown has been able to capitalize on his opponents’ mistakes more often. And that is not to say he is a better player, but as a center fielder of sorts, he is able to play over the top and break on passes with regularity. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2021, Brown has racked up an impressive nine INT and eight PBU.
The safety is in his third season with the Nittany Lions, but rarely saw meaningful snaps in 2020. He then broke out in a major way last year, totaling 73 tackles and six INT. He also added one forced fumble and two recoveries. It was a bit of a surprise given Brown’s college career prior to 2021, but many players develop as “late bloomers”. And if you knew anything about him coming out of the JuCo ranks, you might have even expected this. Because the 5-foot-11, 208 pound playmaker snatched eight interceptions while at Lackawanna Community College in Scranton, PA (shoutout Dunder Mifflin and world’s best boss, Michael Scott).
Thus far in 2022, Brown has accumulated 41 tackles and three INT, leading the team in both. He is the plain clothes officer inside the club to Porter Jr.’s outside security. Meaning, if you make it past one, you still have to deal with the other. The two DB’s have really only contributed to one subpar performance (collectively) this season, and that came against Purdue in Week 1, when the Nittany Lions gave up 365 yards passing. We have also seen PSU struggle to stop the run at times, although that is not an indictment on Brown and Porter Jr.
The Buckeyes should (presumably) be looking to strike balance with their offense on Saturday, without leaning too heavily on one thing or another. If they are backed into a corner and forced to air it out for a majority of the game, the Penn State secondary – Porter Jr. and Brown in particular – could make things interesting. Let’s hope that Ryan Day’s game plan and OSU’s superior weapons are more than enough to get it done. Go Bucks!