LAS VEGAS — Nevada’s Jimbo Davis raced to the Northwest corner of Sam Boyd Stadium looking for one thing after the Wolf Pack defeated UNLV 45-10 on Saturday.
But the Fremont Cannon — college football’s heaviest and most expensive rivalry trophy — had already been moved to Nevada’s side of the field, waiting to be rolled to midfield for a celebration.
“I made the decision that we weren’t going to downplay the rivalry and that we were going to play it up and make sure everybody understood how important this game was not only to our players and our staff to our department to our university, but also to the Northern Nevada community,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. “I had a hunch that we were going to play good because our guys practiced unbelievably well this week. They were really tuned in.”
It was an outcome well in hand long before time expired, as Nevada flexed its muscle in its annual game with the Rebels, dominating from start to finish.
And in doing so, coach Brian Polian made an argument to save his job.
“There’s been a lot of negativity swirling around our program for the last month or so, and the last two weeks our guys have been showing incredible character and toughness,” said Polian, who is 23-27 after four years at the helm and who has one year left on his contract. “They have hung together and embodied everything we’ve been talking about.”
The victory avenged UNLV’s victory last year, when the Rebels held off a late Wolf Pack rally to preserve a 23-17 win in Reno. The teams have now alternated victories in the battle for the 545-pound cannon the past five years. The cannon is a replica of the one explorer John C. Fremont brought into Nevada in the mid-19th century. The tradition for each team after winning the cannon back, is to paint it in school colors.
“I’m excited to paint it blue and watch our guys enjoy this because they deserve it,” Polian said. “Losing at home last year was a bad feeling, especially when I felt that defensively we played good enough to win. We had a late turnover in the game that really kind of swung the whole thing. Not only to win, but to win decisively; we won decisively. We won every phase of the game today. I felt that we were the more physical team. I think it’s a validation of the kids and the coaches that we have working with us.”
Running back James Butler ran for a career-best 196 yards and three touchdowns and caught a pass for another score to lead Nevada, which improved to 25-17 in the all-time series with the Rebels.
Butler, a junior, eclipsed his previous best of 189 yards to end the season with 3,313 career yards rushing. He scored on a 33-yard run and a 14-yard pass from Ty Gangi as the Wolf Pack (5-7, 3-5 Mountain West) took a 27-10 halftime lead. He added scoring runs of 3 and 13 yards in the fourth quarter.
Spencer Pettit kicked three field goals and Gangi, who had 193 yards passing and 99 rushing, ran 19 yards for a score.
Kurt Palandech rushed for 98 yards, scoring once, and passed for 121 for the Rebels (4-8, 3-5).
Nevada opened the game by driving 65 yards in eight plays over 4:12, and took a 7-0 lead after Gangi ran in for his score. They took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter, and immediately made it 17-0 when Butler scampered 33 yards for a score.
Nevada held a 27-10 lead at halftime.
The Rebels converted just 1 of 12 third downs, while the Wolf Pack converted 8 of 13 and outgained UNLV 511-303. And while UNLV had nine drives end with seven punts, a turnover on downs and an interception, Nevada punted the ball two times and had no turnovers.
“They turned out over 300 yards rushing and there was no mystery of what they were trying to do, and we struggled stopping them,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “It looked like we were a tired worn-down football team, and that’s unacceptable to be that in a game as big as it was. I’m disappointed in our lack of preparedness and lack of physicality.”