C.J. Stroud met Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. at an NCAA outreach seminar for college players during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Between that meeting, the pair’s first game against one another last season and all the tape Stroud’s watched on Porter since then, it's clear the Nittany Lion defensive back has made quite an impression on Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy frontrunner.
“He's a really good player. I think the best DB in college football, other than the guys we have on my team,” Stroud said Wednesday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Their next rendezvous, sure to be less cordial than the aforementioned encounter, will be part of a key matchup that could decide the outcome of Saturday’s Ohio State-Penn State clash in Happy Valley.
Porter’s 11 pass breakups through seven games, more than all but three players in the FBS, only underscore Stroud's praise for the redshirt sophomore. As does his status as a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist. And Porter is just one of several stellar Penn State defensive backs who Ohio State must prepare for this week as the Buckeyes take on the most talented secondary they’ve seen all season.
Beyond Porter, Stroud named six other members of the Nittany Lion back seven who have stood out to him in tape study.
“(Kalen King), he's a really good corner as well. The safeties are really good,” Stroud said. “(Keaton Ellis), (Jonathan Sutherland), (Daequan Hardy) the nickel, and then they kind of rotate the nickel a little bit. And then (linebacker Curtis Jacobs), he's a hell of a player, along with (Ji’Ayir Brown), which I know him personally, too. He's a real good dude. So I'm looking forward to going out there and playing against those guys.”
In fact, Porter’s not even the highest-rated cornerback on the team when it comes to Pro Football Focus position grades. That would be King, who is the sixth-highest-graded corner in the country entering Week 9. King isn’t far behind Porter with eight pass breakups of his own, and he also has a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this season.
Brown is a fifth-year safety whose six interceptions in 2021 were the most by a Nittany Lion since 2006. Brown leads Penn State again this year with three picks, and is also the team leader with 41 total tackles. He also has 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble through seven games.
“They're really long and lanky. They have good length to them when it comes to being in press man. On film it's been tough for a lot of people to get open with that.”– C.J. Stroud on the PSU Defensive Backs
What makes Porter, King, Brown and company stand out from other defensive backs Stroud has seen this season? The Buckeye quarterback cited their length and physicality. At 6-foot-2, Porter is taller than any corner on the Ohio State roster.
“They're really long and lanky. They have good length to them when it comes to being in press man. On film it's been tough for a lot of people to get open with that,” Stroud said. “They do a good job with being physical off the line and not just letting you just run. So definitely things that are good things for DBs to take advantage of. So we got to do our part on making sure that we just run clean, crisp routes and try to vary body language. But I gotta be on time with throws as well because they do take advantage of the quarterback not being on time.”
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has picked up on all of those same traits when studying the Penn State secondary, especially as they apply to Porter.
“First off, you just notice his length and his ability to get hands on you. And then he gets his hands on a lot of passes,” Day said Tuesday. “Very, very strong at the line of scrimmage and great cover skills and for his size, he can really change direction.”
Penn State’s overall pass defense ranking is a bit misleading. The Nittany Lions sit 79th in the nation in average passing yards allowed per game with 232.9. But in terms of yards per attempt, only 10 teams in the country are giving up fewer than Penn State’s 6.0. Through seven games, opposing offenses are averaging a staggering 38.9 pass attempts per game against the Nittany Lions, which has skewed the total passing yards they’ve given up.
The only Ohio State opponent giving up fewer yards per attempt in the passing game this season is Iowa, which had success limiting the high-powered Buckeye pass attack in the first half of this past weekend’s contest – even if the Hawkeyes eventually gave up 54 points by game’s end.
At halftime, Stroud had only racked up 105 yards on 17 pass attempts with none of those going for a score. Ohio State scored just one touchdown on its first 10 drives against the Hawkeyes, with the lone trip to the end zone coming on the ground. Those struggles eventually dissipated, as Stroud threw touchdowns on four straight possessions during one stretch in the second half. Still, Iowa showed an elite pass defense is capable of slowing the Buckeyes down for at least a portion of a game.
Despite tremendous numbers all around for Stroud this season, he’s thrown an interception in each of the last four games, and he would’ve had three turnovers against Iowa if not for a penalty call that negated his second INT of the day.
The Penn State defense has seven picks in 2022, and its 126 interception return yards rank 23rd in the nation. Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said the Buckeyes won’t avoid targeting Penn State’s best defensive backs, but they can’t do so with reckless abandon on Saturday.
“It goes back to that greed part, just being smart. You can't just cross the guy off and not challenge the guy, but also you got to be smart,” Wilson said Tuesday. “Joey's a great player. The other corner's equally (good), overshadowed because of (Porter’s) name. They're really good outside at the corners. So our guys are gonna have to work hard to get open and do what it takes to win the routes. We got to deliver the ball and go on time. You don't shy away from it, but you just gotta be careful to not be greedy. As a runner, as a quarterback and as a play caller.”
Even if Penn State matches up better than most against the Ohio State pass attack, only two of the Buckeyes’ first seven opponents have held them under 250 passing yards and four passing scores in any single game this season. The Nittany Lions will likely have to join those ranks if they hope to upset Ohio State, which ranks second in the country in scoring offense while averaging a fraction under 50 points per game this season.
But Ohio State isn’t pretending it won’t be tested against Penn State this weekend, and the Nittany Lions’ home-field advantage will only make things more difficult for an opposing offense.
“We're gonna have to block them up front, we're gonna have to be smart and make the plays outside. But we're gonna get challenged across the board and we can't back away from a challenge,” Wilson said. “We just got to be very aggressive but very smart and calculated as we go.”