The two college football teams from the Battle Born state will head into their in-state rivalry game a bit battle weary.
“We went back to the house, shut the shades, had a couple of adult beverages and talked it out,” Nevada Wolf Pack coach Bran Polian said of his post game activities after a demoralizing 40-20 loss to Fresno State last Saturday at Mackay Stadium. “We’re still getting over the sting of Saturday night.”
UNLV Rebels coach Bobby Hauck understood how Polian and the Pack felt this week. His Rebels lost at Hawaii last Saturday night, 37-35, on a last-second 20-yard touchdown pass after taking a 35-31 lead with just 15 seconds to play in the game.
“Our guys fought their tails off,” Hauck said. “I’m just sick for them. We handed out Reno scouting reports to our players on the plane ride home.”
After last week‘s heartbreaking losses, the Battle for the Fremont Cannon on Saturday night (7:30 p.m., ESPNU) at Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium couldn’t have come soon enough for the beleaguered Wolf Pack and Rebels.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for a whole year,” Wolf Pack linebacker Jonathan McNeal said.
Saturday night’s game will be the first in almost a decade the Fremont Cannon will be on the sidelines painted Rebel red. UNLV beat the Wolf Pack 27-22 in front of a crowd of 32,521 last year at Mackay Stadium and took home the cannon for the first time since 2004.
“There’s no better feeling than going up against the guys from up north and defending our cannon,” UNLV defensive back Mike Horsey said.
The Rebels have definitely taken ownership of the heaviest (550 pounds) trophy in college sports.
“It was a great feeling bringing that cannon here,” said Rebel wide receiver Devante Davis, whose 11-yard touchdown catch gave UNLV a 27-16 lead over the Pack last year.
“We got a bucket of paint and let all our teammates and the students take a swipe at it and paint it red,” Horsey said.
The cannon has been red 16 times and Wolf Pack blue for 23 since the rivalry began in 1969.
“It fires me up that our guys view it as their cannon,” Hauck said. “The fact is, whoever wins the game gets to own it for a year and we enjoyed having it and want to keep it.”
The Wolf Pack owned it for eight years in a row (2005-12) and planned on bringing it back home with them early Sunday morning.
“Being one of the quarterbacks to lose the cannon, it will be special for me to be one of the quarterbacks to bring it back to the university,” said Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo, who had touchdown runs of 60 and 55 yards against Fresno State last week.
Polian last year joined Chris Ault (1976) and Chris Tormey (2000) as the only Pack coaches to lose their first game against UNLV. Jerry Scattini (1969), Jeff Horton (1993) and Jeff Tisdel (1996) all won their debut games against the Rebels.
“This past off-season whenever I talked to people I didn’t hear that much about 4-8,” said Polian of the Pack’s record last season. “When I talked to people in the community it was the loss of the cannon that weighed on them more than 4-8.
“We always say around here that no game is more important than any other but with this game there is something very different about it. I have a better feel for that this year than I did last year.”
Polian quickly learned what the cannon meant to Wolf Pack fans, who had been accustomed to seeing it painted blue for 18 of 24 years from 1989-2012.
“That might have been the lowest point, frankly, of my coaching career,” Polian said. “In my first season we couldn’t keep the cannon here.”
“Last year people didn’t realize how big it was until we lost it,” McNeal said.
“I think we took it for granted,” Fajardo said. “It’s that phrase, ‘You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.’ That’s how it was for us. When you get it ripped away from you like that it hurts even more.”
The cannon is the only meaningful trophy either team has left to play for this season. UNLV, which is 2-10 overall and 1-6 in the Mountain West, has been eliminated from conference championship and bowl game consideration for a while. For the Wolf Pack (6-5, 3-4), though, their Mountain West title dreams didn’t die until last week when Fresno State shut them out 12-0 in the second half at Mackay Stadium.
“We’re talking to the team about getting the cannon back as a way to salvage our season,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack, which became bowl eligible two weeks ago, could have another game to play after UNLV. Polian, though, isn’t so sure.
“I don’t consider us a lock for a bowl at six wins,” Polian said. “If we want to solidify a spot for a bowl we have to win this game.”
For UNLV, Saturday night’s game will be the end to another long season. The Rebels have gone just 15-48 under Hauck since the former Montana head coach took over the program in 2010. UNLV has lost 10 or more games in four of Hauck’s five seasons.
This year its bowl game is Saturday night.
“It was awesome to finally get the win for UNLV,” said Hauck of last year’s win at Mackay Stadium. “It had been a long time for UNLV. College football rivalry games are special. It’s a real cool deal.”
Rivalry games can define a head coach’s career at a school. The Wolf Pack will need to win Saturday to avoid yet another disastrous end to a season. Just three weeks ago the Pack were 6-3 and riding a three-game winning streak with dreams of playing in the Mountain West title game.
The Wolf Pack has limped to the finish line in each of the last three years. In 2011 they lost three of their last four, in 2012 they lost five of their last six and last year they lost six of their last seven.
“I know what it means,” Polian said. “We’re making sure our guys know how important this game is. Our one goal right now is to bring the cannon back. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.”
The struggling Rebels, though, might be what the Pack need right now.
UNLV averages just 21.5 points a game and allows a Mountain West-worst 37.6 points and 518.4 yards a game. UNLV’s offense in 10th in the 12-team Mountain West at 388.3 yards a game and its rushing offense is last at 122.8 a game. The Rebel defense is also last at stopping the run, allowing 284.3 yards a game on the ground.
The Rebels do have impressive passing numbers (third in the league at 265.5 yards a game) but that’s only because they are usually getting blown out in games and have to constantly throw the ball. Their 459 pass attempts are the most in the conference. Rebel quarterback Blake Decker, who threw three touchdown passes in 12 minutes in relief of starter Jared Lebowitz last week at Hawaii, has thrown for 2,715 yards and 13 touchdowns this year. Lebowitz has thrown for 344 yards and one score.
Hauck is most concerned about finding a way to stop Fajardo, who has rushed for 854 yards and 12 touchdowns and passed for 2,328 yards and 15 scores this year. Fajardo, who threw for 357 yards and two touchdowns last year against UNLV, is 20-21 as the Pack’s starting quarterback in his roller coaster career.
Fajardo’s first career start in 2011 came against UNLV in a 37-0 win at Mackay Stadium. Saturday’s game will be his final regular season start and his first at Sam Boyd. He missed the game in Las Vegas two years ago because of an injury.
“Having a guy start that many games at quarterback gives you an edge,” Hauck said. “It’s hard to defend everything with an option type football team. You have to defend the width of the field and the depth of the field. It’s hard to stop.”
If nothing else, the game will improve UNLV’s attendance. The Rebels are currently last in the Mountain West in attendance at just 14,778 fans a game. The biggest crowd to ever attend a Wolf Pack-Rebel football game was 37,179 at Sam Boyd in 2006. The Wolf Pack won that day, 31-3.
“For us to upset them in this game we have to catch a break or two and have a real inspired effort,” Hauck said.
Inspiration won’t be a problem for two teams who desperately need a victory.
“This is a rival game,” Hauck said. “We don’t need a motivational speaker, wear special uniforms or have a coach break down crying in the locker room.”
“This is a good game to get our team re-energized going into a bowl game,” Fajardo said.
McNeal fully intends on painting the cannon blue next week.
“I felt like we just let them borrow the cannon last year,” he said. “This year when we get it back we’re going to paint it blue and keep it for a very long time.”