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Penn State Faces Unprecedented 3-Game Stretch vs. Michigan, Ohio State & Michigan State

by on May 25, 2017 10:30 PM

It may be 100 days until Penn State's 2017 opener vs. Akron, Akron, Akron, Akron, Akron.

But the true test of the Nittany Lions this season begins in 149 days, on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 21.

That's when they begin a three-game, 15-day stretch hosting Michigan in a Beaver Stadium Whiteout, followed by consecutive contests on the road against Ohio State and Michigan State.

It's quite the 25th anniversary gift the Big Ten Conference has dealt the Nittany Lions — which just fuels the fires that contend there is an anti-Penn State bias at 5440 Park Place in Rosemont, Illinois.

That trio of games is the first time since Penn State began playing football in the Big Ten in 1993 that it will face the Wolverines, the Buckeyes and the Spartans in back-to-back-to-back contests. In any order.

The 2017 season will mark the 20th time that Penn State has faced all three of the aforementioned Big Ten foes in one season. Twice they've run the table, going 3-0 vs. the three teams in a season — in 1994 and 2008. Six other times they've gone 2-1 in round-robin play. That includes 2016, when James Franklin's Nittany Lions, demoralized by injuries and a fast 28-0 Wolverine start, lost 49-10 to Michigan, but rebounded three weeks later to beat second-ranked Ohio State, 24-21, then capped the regular season with a 45-12 victory over Michigan State.

SWEEPS

A three-game sweep among the four East Division schools is not that uncommon — it's happened 11 times over the past 24 seasons. Michigan State did it most recently, going 3-0 vs. Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State in 2015. Overall, Ohio State has done it five times in 17 chances since 1993, while both Michigan (1997, 2000 and Michigan State (1999, 2015) have gone 3-0 twice. (Fortunes can change quickly, though. After sweeping The Big Three in 2015, Michigan State was swept by the same three teams in 2016.)

In many years, going 2-1 in U-M, MSU, OSU and PSU round-robin play is good enough to win the division and get you to the title game — and beyond. Witness Penn State in 2016.

Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, Ohio State has dominated round-robin play among the four teams. Records in games played just among the four teams are as follows:

Ohio State — 45-22 (.672)

Michigan — 34-34 (.500)

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Penn State — 29-36 (.446)

Michigan State — 24-40 (.375)

The three-in-a-row that Penn State faces this October is unprecedented in its first 24 years in the Big Ten. Heck, playing two of the three teams (MSU, OSU and U-M) on consecutive weeks does not happen with great regularity. Penn State has had back-to-back games against two of the three aforementioned foes 11 times. And the Nittany Lions have won both games only four times (1994, 1995, 1996 and 2008), while going 1-1 three times and 0-2 four times. It has happened recently, though, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with a sanction-weakened Penn State team going 1-5 in those contests and losing by an aggregate 235-126. (The sole win was the '13 43-40 four-OT victory over Michigan.)

PENN STATE’S 2017 SLATE

In 2017, Penn State should begin its historic three-game stretch rested and possibly 6-0, if not 5-1 or the much-moire unlikely 4-2. The Nittany Lions open the season with Akron (5-7 in 2016), Pitt (8-5) and Georgia State (3-9) at home, followed by Iowa (8-5) on the road, Indiana (6-7) at home and Northwestern (7-6) on the road. (Including his time at Vanderbilt, Franklin has never won at Northwestern's Ryan Field).

That six-game season-opening stretch is followed by an off-week, which is followed by the Oct. 21 Whiteout against Michigan — sure to be a night game with #110k screaming fans. Then the Nittany Lions hit the road for intra-division games at The Horseshoe (Oct. 28) and Spartan Stadium (Nov. 4).

It's true that Michigan and Jim Harbaugh have lost, as per their custom, a couple dozen seniors — give or take a few — and Sparty is coming off a 3-9 season where he was just 1-8 in Big Ten play. But Penn State doesn't have pleasant memories of The Shoe or Spartan Stadium. On its last four visits to those two venues, Penn State has lost by a combined 190-50 (63-14 and 38-10 at OSU, 34-10 and 55-16).

Franklin will likely — and correctly — point out that was almost like an entirely different era ago. And he'd be right. But those scores do indicate how daunting it can be to play on the road in the Big Ten East.

TOUGHEST 3-GAME STRETCHES

As it is, Penn State's three-game regular season stretch is likely to rank among its toughest ever. Here are 12 three-game regular-season strings that were also challenging for the Nittany Lions. You'll notice that the early 1980s were especially brutal:

1976 — Stanford (W, 15-12), No. 2 Ohio State (L, 12-7) and Iowa (L, 7-6).

1980 — at Texas A&M (W, 25-9), at No. 15 Nebraska (L, 21-7) and at No. 9 Missouri (W, 29-21).

1981 — at No. 6 Alabama (L, 31-16), Notre Dame (W, 24-21) and at No. 1 Pitt (W, 48-14).

1982 — No. 2 Nebraska (W, 27-24), at No. 4 Alabama (L, 42-21) and Syracuse (W, 28-7).

1983 — No. 3 Alabama (W, 34-28), at Syracuse (W, 17-6), No. 5 West Virginia (W, 41-23).

1993 — No. 18 Michigan (L, 21-13), at No. 3 Ohio State (L, 24-6) and No. 13 Indiana (W, 38-31).

1994 — at No. 5 Michigan (W, 31-24), No. 21 Ohio State (W, 63-14) and at Indiana (35-29).

2001 — No. 15 Michigan (L, 20-0), at No. 22 Northwestern (38-35) and Ohio State (W, 29-27).

2003 — at No. 18 Purdue (L, 28-14), at No. 16 Iowa (L, 26-14) and No. 8 Ohio State (L, 21-20).

2004 — This is the only time in Penn State history when, according to the official Penn State football media guide, PSU played Top 25 teams in four consecutive regular-season games: at No. 20 Wisconsin (L, 16-3), at No. 18 Minnesota (L, 16-7), No. 9 Purdue (L, 20-13) and Iowa (L, 6-4). And to cap things off, the Nittany Lions played at unranked Ohio State the very next week (L, 21-10).

2008 — at Wisconsin (W, 48-7), Michigan (W, 46-17) and at No. 9 Ohio State (W, 13-6).

2013 — Michigan (W, 43-40, 4OT), at Ohio State (L, 63-14) and Illinois (W, 24-17, OT).



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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