The Nevada Wolf Pack football team had a 550-pound visitor in its locker room this past week.
“We moved the Fremont Cannon from upstairs down into our locker room on Sunday night,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. “We have a lot of youngsters on this football team, a lot of players who are not from this state. I wanted them to know what a big deal this is.”
The Fremont Cannon, which goes to the winner of the Wolf Pack-UNLV Rebels game each year, has lived at the Wolf Pack’s Cashell Fieldhouse for the past eight years. The Wolf Pack is hoping to extend that streak to nine years with a victory this afternoon (3:05 p.m.) at Mackay Stadium against the Rebels.
“Nobody on this team has ever seen that cannon painted red,” Wolf Pack defensive lineman Jordan Hanson said. “We’ve never seen it any color other than blue. Our whole goal is to make sure that doesn’t change.”
The Wolf Pack, which owns a 23-15 edge in the Silver State rivalry dating back to 1969, has never lost to the Rebels since former head coach Chris Ault invented the pistol offense in 2005. The pistol has helped the Wolf Pack outscore UNLV on average 39-19 and out gain them on average 534-314 over the last eight games. The Pack has used five different starting quarterbacks (Jeff Rowe, Nick Graziano, Colin Kaepernick, Cody Fajardo and Devin Combs) during the streak but the result has always been the same: The cannon has remained blue.
“The last thing we want to see is the cannon turn red,” Hanson said.
The Pack’s 23 victories in the rivalry have gone to just four head coaches. Jeff Horton won one game, Jerry Scattini won three, Jeff Tisdel won four and Ault won 15. Polian is hoping to become the fifth Pack coach to keep the cannon blue.
“I first heard about this game the day I got here,” said Polian, who was named the Pack head coach in January. “The first time I walked into the building they took me right to the cannon. At first, I don’t think I understood how strong the feelings up here in the north are about this game. But ... the fans reminded me how important it was. That’s fun. That’s pretty cool.”
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, who is 0-3 in the Battle for the Fremont Cannon, also knows how important this game is to the state.
“We consider this the most important game on our schedule,” Hauck said.
Both teams will wear their dark home jerseys on Saturday in front of what is expected to be a sold out (29,993) Mackay Stadium.
“Rivalry games are part of what makes college football so great,” Polian said. “I’ve been fortunate to be part of great rivalries like Notre Dame-USC and Stanford-Cal. And those were great rivalries. But when you go to Nevada or UNLV, this is your USC-Notre Dame. It means just as much.”
Polian also doesn’t expect an easy time today.
“This is not the UNLV that people have gotten used to seeing,” Polian said. “This is a different UNLV team.”
The Rebels, at 4-3 overall and 2-1 in the Mountain West, will actually have the better record at kickoff. The Pack, losers of two in a row on the road at San Diego State and Boise State are 3-4, 2-2.
“I feel sorry no matter who our next opponent is, whether it’s UNLV or not,” Fajardo said. “We are going to come out and play with an attitude and play a little chippy.”
UNLV could be without starting running back Tim Cornett. Cornett, who has rushed for 139 yards over the last three seasons against the Pack, is UNLV’s all-time leading rusher with 3,158 yards. The 6-foot, 210-pound senior, who has rushed for 709 yards and nine touchdowns this year, injured his right knee in a 38-14 loss at Fresno State last Saturday.
If Cornett is unavailable, Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, who has 359 yards and two touchdowns this year on just 37 carries, is expected to get the bulk of the carries.
“Without him, they become a little bit faster,” Polian said. “Cornett is going to pound you downhill. Lawrence is the speed guy. But that doesn’t matter. We learned last week that when you knock out the starter the other guys is just as good.”
Boise State starting quarterback Joe Southwick broke an ankle on the Broncos’ first play last week against the Pack. He was replaced by Grant Hedrick, who rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 150 yards in a 34-17 win over the Pack.
Wolf Pack defensive tackle Jack Reynoso, who joined the Wolf Pack in 2009, said “this is the best Rebels team I’ve played.”
Hauck, now in his fourth season as Rebels head coach, agrees.
“It’s our best team, for sure,” Hauck said. “We have a good, solid football team.”
Polian is hoping to become just the fourth Wolf Pack head coach after Scattini (1969), Horton (1993) and Tisdel (1996) to win his first game against UNLV. Ault, oddly enough, lost his first game against UNLV in all three of his different eras as Pack coach (in 1976, 1994 and 2004). Ault, though, did leave the Wolf Pack having won his last eight cannon battles.
“We (the current coaching staff) didn’t carry the burden of all those losses to Boise State and we can’t take credit for the eight straight wins against UNLV because we weren’t here,” Polian said. “But that being said, I do feel the pressure. The cannon’s been here for eight years. That’s pressure. But that’s OK. That’s what makes it fun.”