Indiana Penn St Football

Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (9) fights off a stiff arm by Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle (3) in the first half of their NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 02, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

STATE COLLEGE – Through the midway point of the 2021 season, Penn State’s defense has been as good, if not better than Nittany Lions’ coaches anticipated.

During the offseason, the secondary was constantly touted as a position group many expected to set the tone for the defensive unit.

There was good reason for the optimism, as it returned a blend of veteran leadership and budding talent that played well despite the team’s overall 4-5 record in 2020. Nittany Lions’ defensive backs a year ago yielded a Big Ten second-best 198.6 passing yards to opposing quarterbacks.

Penn State redshirt sophomore cornerback Joey Porter Jr. has factored heavily into the Nittany Lions’ early season success on defense.

Surrendering passing touchdowns isn’t something Penn State’s secondary has done much of this season. Through six games, the Nittany Lions have only yielded four this season – which only trails Purdue’s three – to rank second in the Big Ten and tied for third among teams in the FBS.

“The best thing that our defense does is come back from adversity,” Porter said earlier this season. “I feel like if you give up a big play or give up a touchdown, we don’t put our heads down. We strap our chinstraps, and we just say ‘Let’s go.’ ”

In 2020, Porter logged his first career start in Penn State’s season opener against Indiana following a freshman campaign in which he played in four contests. He tallied his first collegiate tackle against Purdue that year and ended his inaugural collegiate season with three tackles to go with a one pass breakup.

As a full-time starter in 2020, he played more than just a bit part with the secondary, accumulating 33 total tackles, including 24 solo stops. He also added a sack (against the Hoosiers) and four pass breakups.

In December 2020, Porter received accolades as Big Ten Freshman of the Week following a performance against Rutgers in which he posted a career-high six tackles, including one for a loss. Conference coaches at the end of the 2020 season tabbed him a Big Ten honorable-mention selection, while he earned a spot on the Big Ten third team.

In 2021, Porter has enjoyed his most productive season to date behind 23 total tackles, three pass breakups and one interception.

The first interception of his Penn State career came against Indiana on Oct. 2 as the Hoosiers offense faced first-and-10 from Penn State’s 33-yard line as the Nittany Lions held a 14-0 second-quarter lead.

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. heaved a pass to wide receiver Ty Fryfogle and overthrew him by a couple of yards. Porter tracked the football similar to the way a center fielder in baseball does and secured the interception at his team’s 12.

“I thought that the play that Porter Jr. made was a big-time play,” Penn State coach James Franklin said following the Nittany Lions’ win against Indiana earlier this month. “To be tracking the ball like that, receivers doing the same thing, you don’t know if contact’s going to occur to lay out and make that interception. (I’m) super proud of him.”

The second half of Porter’s and Penn State’s schedule sees the Nittany Lions facing the Big Ten’s first-, third- and sixth-ranked passing offenses in Ohio State (352.2 ypg), Maryland (325 ypg) and Michigan State (251 ypg).

Despite the success Porter and his teammates in the secondary have enjoyed when facing opposing quarterbacks this season, the redshirt sophomore isn’t content.

“I feel like there are always areas that our defense can improve,” he said. “That’s just how you become a better defense.”

Elton Hayes is a veteran sports writer who covers Penn State for CNHI LLC publications. Contact him at ehayes@cnhi.com or follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.

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