Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Exploring the Strange Phenomenon Known as ‘The Husker Hex’

November 18, 2022

Patterns teach us about each other. They’re tendencies, some so subliminal and innocuous they go entirely unnoticed. In college football, though, patterns could also be so telling that an opponent could expose them for a significant advantage.

By the time Nebraska retook the field out of its first bye week to play Indiana, a unique trend emerged. Their opponents weren’t the same side after beating the Huskers. It’s become known as the Husker Hex in some circles — including the sickos’ side of college football fandom. Teams are a combined 18-6 before playing Nebraska (not including Michigan because they haven’t played anyone since yet). After Nebraska, they’re a combined 7-23. There’s something fishy here, right?

Let’s get to the bottom of this, starting with the constant, and break down Nebraska’s offense into some advanced stats. In per-possession scoring advantage against an opponent on a neutral field they are 91st, currently losing scoring value on more drives than gaining at -0.35. Only 22.1% of Nebraska’s drives end in touchdowns, that’s 89th in the country. Their value drive rate (percent of drives that end in a greater value than they started) is currently 28.8% (96th in the country). Nebraska ranks 108th in the country with first downs on just 62.5% of drives and is 98th in busted drive rate (no gain or negative-yard drives) with 15.4% of drives finishing even or behind where it started. Roughy 14.4% of drives end in turnovers, that’s 105th in the country.

This is interim head coach Mickey Joseph’s first experience coaching Big Ten football. He’s seen a pattern of success in the simplicity of the run game and pushing people off the line. So he’s emphasized adapting that formula into what the Huskers do.

“Every week we go in and we try to get the run game started,” he said. “We like to throw the ball, but I think this week we are going to try and rely on the run and throw it when we have to.”

Nebraska’s defense, meanwhile, has experienced its own struggles. Nebraska is 100th or worse in those same advanced stats. The Huskers allow touchdowns on 32.7% of drives (101st), first downs on 76.9% of drives (109th) and force turnovers on 8.7% of drives (105). Those are consolidated stats and span both Erik Chinander and Bill Busch tenures as defensive coordinator. Chinander’s three games with Nebraska this season drew the ire of Husker fans.

Northwestern junior Ryan Hilinski threw for a season-best 84.5 QB rating against Nebraska. The Wildcats are winless since that game and haven’t scored more than 24 points since. Georgia Southern came to Lincoln and got Scott Frost fired. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease threw for 409 yards and running back Gerald Green ran for a season-high 132 yards. But the Eagles lost three of their next four games before a resurgent Vantrease threw for 578 yards to beat James Madison. They go into this weekend on a two-game losing streak. No. 6 Oklahoma came into Lincoln and overwhelmed Nebraska. Dillon Gabriel accrued a 95.0 QBR and the Sooners scored on seven of their first 11 drives.

Following a two-game winning streak (more on that in a second), Busch’s defense lost the track meet and Nebraska fell to Purdue. Quarterback Aidan O’Connell threw a season-high four touchdowns and freshman Devin Mockobee posted career highs in both carries (30) and yards (178). Immediately after beating Nebraska on a fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter, Purdue lost to Wisconsin and Iowa (scoring 3 points against the Hawkeyes). Illinois fell behind to Nebraska but, when quarterback Casey Thompson went down, the Illini rallied. Chase Brown ran for 149 yards in the game, which is more than he’s ran for during Illinois’ current two-game losing streak. The Illini also haven’t scored 26 points since that game. Minnesota is the only team to somewhat break the Husker Hex, winning the game immediately following Nebraska. That game, however, was against Northwestern.

Circling back to Nebraska’s two FBS wins — Indiana and Rutgers. Indiana started 3-0 but hasn’t won since, Nebraska was the second game of that stretch. The two teams were tied going into the fourth quarter until the Huskers pulled out their first win under Joseph and Busch. A week later, Indiana fired offensive line coach Darren Hiller. The Hoosiers ran for just 67 yards in that game. Nebraska’s 14-point second-half comeback against Rutgers also brought change. Rutgers accrued 348 yards of total offense but lost. Two days later, head coach Greg Schiano dismissed offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson.

Iowa remains in the Big Ten West picture but Wisconsin, which comes to Lincoln on Saturday, already fired its head coach. Interim head coach Jim Leonhard is 3-2 since taking over, that includes wins over Purdue, Maryland and Northwestern.

It’s been a tough season for Nebraska football fans. A third consecutive three-win season is a possibility and fans are anxious for the announcement about a new head football coach. At least they have the consolation that no team so far is truly the same after playing Nebraska.

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