RENO — The UNLV Rebels are willing to give the shirt off their back to bring the Fremont Cannon back to Las Vegas.
“At our first team meeting this week I told everyone, ‘Nobody wears blue this week. We don’t want to see it,” said Rebels head coach Tony Sanchez, referring to the primary color of the Nevada Wolf Pack. “One of our offensive linemen (Will Kreitler) and our special teams coordinator (Andy LaRussa) both were wearing blue shirts and they immediately took them off. There we were, in a team meeting, and two of our guys weren’t wearing a shirt.”
Passions will definitely run deep on Saturday (4 p.m.) when the Rebels (1-3) and Wolf Pack (2-2) meet at Mackay Stadium in the 41st edition of the Battle for the Fremont Cannon.
“When I first got the job (after last season) the first thing everybody kept telling me was, ‘Get the cannon back, coach. Get the cannon back,’” said Sanchez, who was 85-5 with six state championships in six seasons as Bishop Gorman High’s head coach from 2009-14. “We’re hell bent on bringing the cannon back.”
The Wolf Pack, which has won nine of its last 10 meetings with the Rebels, is just as intent on keeping the cannon in northern Nevada. “We’ll keep it blue,” sophomore offensive tackle Austin Corbett said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure it stays here with us.”
“We want to keep it here forever,” junior wide receiver Jerico Richardson said. “We know how much it means to everyone. So it deserves to be here.”
The home team has not won this rivalry game since the Wolf Pack won at Mackay Stadium, 37-0, in 2011. The Wolf Pack’s stunning 27-22 loss to the Rebels in 2013, the last time the game was played at Mackay Stadium, taught first-year Pack coach Brian Polian a valuable lesson.
“I got a different appreciation for what it means to the community after that game and I respect that,” Polian said.
Polian, whose Pack whipped the Rebels 49-27 in Las Vegas last November, has gotten caught up in the spirit of the rivalry. “I stole a page from (former Wolf Pack) Coach (Chris) Ault and explained to everyone the history of the cannon and the rivalry,” Polian said. “But I don’t want to beat anybody over the head with it. I want to make sure everyone is under control this week and not bouncing off the walls.
“We understand that this game is meaningful to the community, to our players and to our campus. But we’re not going to practice three hours longer each day just because it’s UNLV. This game will not be won by the team that is hooting and hollering the most in pre-game warm-ups.”
The game over the past three decades has been mainly won by the Wolf Pack. The Wolf Pack has won 20 of 28 games against UNLV since 1985 and now owns a 24-16 edge in the rivalry since the first game was played in 1969. The Wolf Pack is also 9-1 against UNLV since Ault first started using the pistol offense in 2005. During the last 10 games the Pack has outscored the Rebels by an average of 39-21 and has rushed for an average of just under 300 yards (292) a game.
“The thing we’ve been preaching all week is to don’t give up the big play,” said Sanchez, a high school coach in New Mexico, Texas, Nevada and California for 15 years before taking over the Rebels this year. “You have to make this team earn everything they get.”
The Wolf Pack got a 91-yard run from James Butler and a 55-yarder from Don Jackson last week in a 24-21 win at Buffalo. The Pack had three 100-yard rushers against UNLV a year ago with Cody Fajardo (143 yards), Jackson (132) and Butler (116). Since Ault invented the pistol the Pack has had nine different players (Brandon Fragger, Colin Kaepernick, Vai Taua, Mike Ball, Luke Lippincott, Stefphon Jefferson, Fajardo, Jackson, Butler) combine for a dozen 100-yard rushing games since 2005.
“This will be a good opportunity for us to show that we can stop the run,” UNLV junior linebacker Ryan McAleenan said.
This is the first time since 2010 that both the Wolf Pack and Rebels enter this rivalry game coming off a victory. UNLV destroyed Idaho State 80-8 last week, setting school records for points scored in a game and for largest margin of victory.
“No matter how you arrive at the number 80 and no matter who it’s against, it gets your attention,” Polian said. “UNLV is much improved.”
Former Rebel coach Bobby Hauck was fired after last season after compiling a record of 13-38 in five seasons. The Rebels have had just one winning season (7-6 in 2013) in the last 14 years and seven in the last 28 and haven’t had a head coach leave the school with a winning record since Harvey Hyde went 26-19-1 from 1982-85.
“You can see they have a renewed energy,” Polian said. “I don’t want to be disrespectful to the old regime (under Hauck) but sometimes a change is needed and you can see the affect of some of those changes.”
Sanchez, who played wide receiver at New Mexico State in 1994 and 1995 (losing to the Wolf Pack both years), might be new to college coaching but he has surrounded himself with a veteran staff, led by defensive coordinator Kent Baer and offensive coordinator Barney Cotton. Baer has been a defensive coordinator for 30 seasons at Colorado, California, Stanford, Notre Dame, Washington, San Jose State, Idaho, Arizona State and Utah State. Cotton spent eight seasons as a Nebraska assistant and has also coached at Iowa State and New Mexico State.
“He (Sanchez) brought in some real good veteran college football coaches,” Polian said. “I’m impressed by what they’ve done. Kent Baer has them playing real good football. They play hard and they are physical and run around. They have our attention in all three phases of the game.”
Rebel quarterback Blake Decker (6-foot-2, 215-pound senior) has passed for 566 yards and five touchdowns. Running back Keith Whitely (5-9, 195-pound junior) has gained 265 yards and Xzaviar Campbell (5-11, 220 freshman) has picked up 214. Wide receivers Kendal Keys (13 catches, 104 yards) and Devonte Boyd (12 catches for 231 yards, three scores) have been Decker’s favorite targets so far. Keys is a big target at 6-4, 200 pounds while the elusive Boyd is 6-1, 175.
“Devonte Boyd is one of the best wide receivers in the entire league,” Polian said. “There’s no doubt that when things get hairy Decker is looking for Boyd.”
The Wolf Pack will be without defensive tackle Rykeem Yates on Saturday. The 6-2, 280-pound senior has been suspended for one game by the Mountain West Conference because of a personal foul he committed in last week’s game at Buffalo.
“We’re going to make big plays for him,” Wolf Pack senior defensive end Lenny Jones said.
The Wolf Pack and Rebels have combined for five losses so far this season already but the two Wolf Pack losses were to Arizona and Texas A&M while the Rebels lost to UCLA, Michigan and Northern Illinois.
“We feel real good about where we’re headed,” Sanchez said. “But we know we’re not there yet.”
Saturday’s game is important to both teams for more reasons than simply bragging rights in the state for a year. It is also the first Mountain West game for both teams. The Wolf Pack has never lost its Mountain West opener, beating Hawaii in 2012 and 2013 and San Jose State last year. The Wolf Pack, in fact, has not lost a conference opener since losing its first Western Athletic Conference game in 2007 to Fresno State.
“Everybody has a fair shot at (a Mountain West division championship) and that includes UNLV,” Polian said.
Sanchez, who never lost to a Nevada team as Bishop Gorman’s coach from 2009-14, is hoping to become the fifth Rebels coach to win his first game against the Wolf Pack, joining Tony Knap (1976), Harvey Hyde (1983), Wayne Nunnely (1987) and Jeff Horton (1994). Just two Wolf Pack coaches – Jerry Scattini in 1969 and Horton in 1993 – won their first game against UNLV.
“This is special,” Decker said. “It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Emotions will be sky high on Saturday.
“We hear it all the time on campus,” McAleenan said. “We know this is a big game for the school. The students want the cannon back as badly as we do.”
“When I go to the grocery store, I hear it,” Decker said. “People stop me and tell me, ‘Hey, get the cannon back.”
It’s the same in northern Nevada.
“This game is bigger than any other one on our schedule,” Jones said.
“It’s for the community, it’s for the team and it’s also for the (former Pack players and coaches) that put in their blood, sweat and tears before us,” Nevada linebacker Bryan Lane said.
The Wolf Pack-Rebels game has been known to provoke an emotional response from fans, especially when the game is at Mackay Stadium. A couple fights among the players broke out on the field in the 1995 game and Rebel coach John Robinson was hit by a plastic water bottle in 2003. Fans of both schools have also been known to create slogans on t-shirts and banners that are in questionable taste. Both school presidents (Nevada’s Marc Johnson and UNLV’s Len Jessup) have done public service announcements and sent out press releases this week, asking fans to keep the cheering under control and in good taste. The theme of the game, as presented by both universities is, “Rivals on the field, Nevadans everywhere else.”
“I want our fans to be as loud as possible,” Polian said. “I want them to be part of the game. But I really hope we can keep it classy and I hope we don’t have any of the goofball stuff.”
The goofball stuff also isn’t always confined to the fans.
“Once the whistle blows all I focus on are the 11 (players) in front of me,” Lane said. “We just have to keep our cool and keep our poise and not get involved in any of the nonsense that happens in this game.”
Sanchez, though, has already started the war of the words this week, calling his rival school to the north the “University of Reno, Nevada.” He also made sure to reinforce the notion that Wolf Pack fans can get a little out of control at times.
“When I was at New Mexico State as a player Reno was always one of the toughest environments to go to with the things the students yell at you,” Sanchez said. “I hope I don’t get with a bottle.”