The Fremont Cannon is on the move once again.
The UNLV Rebels came to northern Nevada on Saturday and stunned the Nevada Wolf Pack, 23-17, in front of the ninth largest crowd (29,551) in Mackay Stadium history.
“Everybody’s crushed,” Wolf Pack running back Don Jackson said. “It hurts.”
The cannon wasn’t the Rebels (2-3) only prize for beating the Pack. The victory is their second in a row and also leaves them 1-0 in Mountain West play. The Pack fell to 2-3, 0-1, losing their Mountain West opener for the first time since joining the conference in 2012.
“We didn’t deserve to win the game,” said Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian, who’s now 1-2 in his career against the Rebels. “We’re incredibly disappointed. The team is in a lot of pain. I can assure you that nobody in the community is hurting more than our guys right now.”
The cannon has now changed hands for three consecutive years for the first time since the three games in 1985, 1987 and 1989 (there was no Pack-UNLV game in 1986 and 1988). The home team still has also not won this rivalry game since the Pack won at Mackay Stadium (37-0) in 2011.
“As a team we know we left a lot on the field,” Pack linebacker Jordan Dobrich said. “We have more to give. What really hurts most is that we didn’t play our best football.”
The Pack likely played its worst football of the young season. UNLV led 13-0 at halftime, controlling the ball for 19 of the first 30 minutes. The Rebels took a 7-0 lead on a 37-yard run by running back Keith Whitely with 8:58 to go in the first quarter and never relinquished the lead.
“The first half was ugly,” said Polian, whose career record fell to 13-17. “We just didn’t make any plays on offense.”
The Pack had no points, just five first downs and a mere 103 total yards of offense at halftime. A chorus of boos greeted the Pack at halftime when quarterback Tyler Stewart took a knee, killing off the final 30 seconds of the half on first down at the Wolf Pack 25-yard line.
“I didn’t play well enough at all for us to win this game,” Stewart said.
Stewart and the Pack offense, though, played the majority of the first half with their backs up against their own end zone. The Pack started four consecutive drives inside their own 5-yard line (at the 3, 2, 2 and 7). Their other two drives in the first half both started at their own 25.
“There’s no doubt, in the field position battle in the first half they did a better job than we didn,” Polian said. “When you are backed up inside your own 5-yard line, that’s very difficult.”
“We can’t blame it on field position,” said Stewart, who was just 5-of-10 for 48 yards through the air in the first half. “We have to execute no matter where we are.”
UNLV scored on a 12-yard run by backup quarterback Kurt Palandech (and missed the extra point) with 30 seconds to go in the half to take a 13-0 lead.
UNLV starting quarterback Blake Decker injured his left arm with 53 seconds to go in the first half and never returned. Palandech stepped in and connected with wide receiver Kendal Keys for a 25-yard gain to the Pack 12-yard line and the next play he scrambled down the left side into the end zone.
“We didn’t tackle well,” Wolf Pack defensive end Lenny Jones said.
“They made a great throw and catch (on the 25-yard gain to Keys),” Polian said. “Our guy was in perfect position. Sometimes they (the opposition) make plays. But on the quarterback draw, we have to get the guy down and force them to kick a field goal. That can’t happen. That touchdown at the end of the half was frustrating.”
The Wolf Pack, though, cut the deficit to just 13-10 on a 27-yard field goal by Brent Zuzo early in the third quarter and a 22-yard touchdown pass from Stewart to wide receiver Jerico Richardson down the middle with 10:47 to go in the fourth quarter.
The Wolf Pack, despite still trailing 13-10, seemingly had taken control of the game after Richardson’s touchdown catch. UNLV’s offense had almost completely stalled with Palandech at the controls and the Pack offense had finally found its rhythm.
“I felt like the momentum was really in our favor,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack got the ball back with nine minutes to go at their own 45-yard line after a 20-yard punt return by Andrew Celis. Stewart then gave all the momentum back to the Rebels as his second down pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and landed into the arms of UNLV linebacker Ryan McAleenan. The junior returned the interception 52 yards for a game-changing touchdown and a 20-10 Rebel lead with 8:27 to play.
“I looked up and saw that a lot of people were leaving the stadium,” Polian said. “But our guys showed a lot of character. They marched right down and scored and got us back in the game.”
It took Stewart and the offense just nine plays and 3:43 to go 75 yards for a touchdown, a 1-yard run by Jackson, to cut the Rebel lead to just 20-17 with 4:50 to play.
“I thought our defense responded to that Pick Six (McAleenan’s interception return) real well,” Dobrich said. “And our offense was moving the ball real well after that.”
But all of the Wolf Pack’s first half struggles then suddenly returned. Wide receiver Kameron Richardson dropped a pass on fourth down, giving UNLV the ball with 2:16 to go at the Pack 33-yard line.
The fans then headed for the exits in a hurry.
“We hit the receiver wide open in the chest,” said Polian of the fourth down pass to Kameron Richardson. “You just got to make plays.”
UNLV, though, could only kill off 26 more seconds and had to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Nicolai Bornand for a 23-17 lead with 1:53 to go.
The Pack took over the ball at their own 25-yard line with 1:53 left with one more chance to steal the victory. Stewart picked up first downs on a 12-yard pass to Wyatt Demps and a 7-yarder to Kameron Richardson. He also scrambled 10 yards for another first down at the UNLV 43-yard line. But four incomplete passes from the 43 allowed the Rebels to secure the cannon for the second time in the last three years.
The Wolf Pack, which had beaten UNLV nine times in the last 10 seasons heading into Saturday’s game, still lead the rivalry, 24-17.
“We have to be men and own it,” Polian said. “There are no excuses. We have a lot of football left.”
“We can’t let one loss define our season,” Dobrich said. “This one hurts a little more but, still, it won’t define us.”