RENO - This is the week Chris Ault lives for as the head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack football team.
"This game means a lot to the entire state of Nevada," said Ault of the 37th meeting between the Wolf Pack and UNLV Rebels today (4 p.m., 630-AM) at Mackay Stadium. "Our people in this community have bought into it."
Better yet the Wolf Pack players have bought into Ault's annual message about the meaning of the Battle for the Fremont Cannon.
"We've won six straight games against UNLV," senior quarterback Tyler Lantrip said this week. "Our seniors have never lost to them. I want to make sure that doesn't happen."
"The cannon has been here six years," senior defensive end Kaelin Burnett said. "We want to keep it here. We want to go out and make our fans happy."
Last year's Wolf Pack seniors, led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, defensive end Dontay Moch and running back Vai Taua, also never lost to the Rebels in their Wolf Pack careers. They kept the cannon blue a year ago by beating the Rebels, 44-26, in Las Vegas.
"This game has to mean something to you as a player," said Ault, who never got the chance to play UNLV as a Pack quarterback in the 1960s because the southern Nevada school still did not exist. "It's not just another game."
The Wolf Pack and Rebels will both bring losing records (both are 1-3) into this rivalry game for the first time since 2001. But there are many disturbing similarities between the Wolf Pack and Rebels in addition to their sub-.500 records.
The Pack has scored 81 points this year, the Rebels have scored 80. Both teams have just five quarterback sacks on defense and both teams have scored just 10 touchdowns on offense. And both teams have come out of the starting gate and immediately struggled -- the Pack has been outscored 75-35 in the first half while the Rebels have been outscored 89-30.
"This is a battle between two struggling teams," Ault said.
UNLV - and the season's first home game - might be just what the struggling Wolf Pack needs right now. The Wolf Pack was also 0-3 going into the UNLV game in 2009, which was also at Mackay Stadium. The Pack won that day, 63-28, to start an eight-game winning streak as freshman Mike Ball, a former Las Vegas-area high school star, rushed for 184 yards and five touchdowns.
Ault, though, is more worried about 2011 than he is concerned about remembering the past.
"That's history," said Ault of the Rebels last visit to Mackay Stadium in 2009. "That means nothing to us when it comes to this year."
Ault expects to find out a lot about his football team today. The first four games were difficult to assess, Ault said, because they were all on the road and two of the games (Oregon and Boise State) were against nationally-ranked teams.
"This is definitely a terrific measuring stick," said Ault, who has a 13-7 record as Pack head coach against UNLV. "We'll find out a lot about our football team in all phases and we'll find out about a lot of individuals."
A couple of those individuals are quarterbacks. As has been his weekly ritual the last couple weeks, Ault kept his starting quarterback (Lantrip or Cody Fajardo) a secret this week.
"We have to try to find the right players to fit their piece of the puzzle," Ault said. "If the right guys aren't playing, we have to find the right guys."
Ault said all of the Pack's struggles this year start with the struggles of the quarterback.
"It starts right there," he said. "We have to get that fixed. But here we are in Week 5 and that quarterback situation has not been settled."
The quarterback position, though, isn't the only dilemma facing Ault and his coaching staff. The Pack still has yet to find a productive wide receiver or two to complement Rishard Matthews, the offensive line and special teams have been very inconsistent and the only production the Pack has gotten from its defensive line has been from tackle Brett Roy, who has all five Pack sacks.
"This year (heading into the UNLV game) has been different because of where we're at football-wise. Our meetings have been longer, we're still trying to find the right mix. We still are trying to find the square pegs to fit into the square holes, so to speak."
The Wolf Pack, even with its difficult schedule, is not where Ault thought it would be at this stage of the season.
"I am very disappointed in the way we've played," he said. "This is the first time in a long, long time that we have not been consistent in all areas of the team. That's offense, defense and special teams. There's not one area we can put our stamp on and say, 'That's what we do well.'"
The Rebels can say the same thing.
UNLV is 1-3 after a stunning 41-16 loss to Southern Utah at home two weeks ago. The Las Vegas Review-Journal called the loss to the Football Championship Subdivision (the former Division I-AA) Thunderbirds "perhaps the worst loss in school history."
"That's the kind of loss that sticks with you for a long time," Rebels coach Bobby Hauck said.
Hauck, who had an 80-17 record as Montana's head coach, is 3-14 as Rebel head coach since accepting the job before the start of the 2010 season.
"I'd like to say it's the youth," said Hauck, when asked to explain his team's troubles this year.
The Rebels, which haven't had a winning season since 2000, have 20 freshmen and sophomores on their first and second units on offense and defense combined. They'll be led on offense by sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring (607 yards, five touchdowns), sophomore running backs Tim Cornett (274 yards) and Bradley Randle (186 yards) and senior wide receiver Phillip Payne (25 catches, 304 yards, four touchdowns).
"We know him well," said Ault of Herring. "He can run. He's a good athlete and he's very capable of hurting a defense."
Payne also concerns Ault.
"He's got great size and they will throw it up to him," Ault said.
The Pack, though, is just happy to finally get the chance to play in front of their own fans. Today will be the latest date in a season the Pack has opened at home since the 1958 team played its home opener on Oct. 18 (an 18-6 loss to San Francisco State). This game also will be the Pack's first performance in front of the home crowd since its landmark 34-31 overtime victory over Boise State last Nov. 26.
"We're excited to be here," Lantrip said. "The atmosphere for us will be electric."
"We just need to get home and play at Mackay Stadium," said linebacker Brandon Marshall, who leads the team with 37 tackles.
The Wolf Pack, which will play its next three games at home (against UNLV, New Mexico and Fresno State) hasn't lost at home since a 31-21 loss to Missouri on Sept. 25, 2009, a stretch of 12 games. They also haven't lost to UNLV at Mackay Stadium since coach Chris Tormey's Wolf Pack lost 16-12 in 2003. Ault hasn't lost at Mackay Stadium to UNLV since 1979.
"Mackay Stadium is special," Ault said. "When that place is packed, it's a special place to play."
The Wolf Pack hasn't started a season 0-4 since 1999. That team, coached by Jeff Tisdel, earned its first victory of the year against UNLV in Week 5. The only Ault coached team to start the year 0-4 was in 1982.
"I hope the fans still believe in us," Marshall said. "We're still the Wolf Pack. We're still a winning program."