The Nevada Wolf Pack football team welcomed a special visitor this week.
Chris Ault, who won 233 games as Wolf Pack head coach during 28 seasons, talked to the Nevada players and coaches about the history of the Wolf Pack-UNLV Rebels annual Battle for the Fremont Cannon.
“It was great for our players to hear him,” said Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell, who will experience his first Fremont Cannon rivalry game today (noon) at Mackay Stadium. “It was great to hear his passion and fire.”
It was the first time Ault spoke to the Wolf Pack since his final game as head coach in 2012. The 71-year-old Ault won 15-of-22 games against UNLV in his career, including the final eight and 13 of the last 15.
“We never really heard Coach Ault talk to us before,” senior linebacker Travis Wilson said. “His talk was real emotional. He told us what this game means to the community, to past alums and past coaches. He made sure we didn’t take the game lightly.”
“There’s nobody more qualified to talk about this rivalry than Coach Ault,” Norvell said.
“He did a great job,” senior offensive tackle Austin Corbett said of Ault. “He covered everything. He’s been a part of so many of these games. Nobody else can explain it like he can. He just got everyone fired up.”
The Wolf Pack, now 2-9 overall and 2-5 in the Mountain West, is looking at this season-ending game as a way to salvage a disappointing season. UNLV (5-6, 4-3) needs one more victory to become bowl eligible for just the fifth time in its school history. Six Mountain West teams (Boise State, Colorado State, Wyoming, Utah State, Fresno State and San Diego State) are already bowl eligible.
“You could be 11-0 on the season and this game would be huge,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “You could be 2-9 like they (the Wolf Pack) are and it is huge. But the opportunity for us to move into the postseason, it’s a big deal.”
The home team hasn’t won this game since the Wolf Pack won 37-0 at Mackay Stadium in 2011 when Ault was coach. Norvell is hoping to become the first Wolf Pack coach to beat UNLV in his first year at Nevada since Jeff Tisdel in 1996. Even Ault lost to UNLV at the beginning of all three of his separate eras as Pack coach, in 1976, 1994 and 2004.
“It’s an important game for us,” Norvell said. “This is our bowl game.”
“I’ve heard them say that this is their bowl game,” Sanchez said. “They’ve been to 15 bowl games. That team is used to going to bowl games. We’re working our tails off to become a team that has that type of tradition.”
The Wolf Pack rolled over the Rebels 45-10 last year in Las Vegas as quarterback Ty Gangi passed for 193 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 99 yards and another score and running back James Butler ran for 196 yards and scored four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving).
“Every day we walk back to our locker room we see a wooden plank and there’s nothing on it because the trophy that goes on it is in Reno right now.” Sanchez said.
“To see (Nevada players) roll the cannon away after last year’s game, that’s a picture that has stayed in my mind all year,” UNLV defensive lineman Mike Hughes said.
Norvell, thanks to former coach Brian Polian’s victory over UNLV last November, hasn’t spent a day without the cannon painted blue and in the Pack’s possession in the hallway outside the coach’s offices at Cashell Fieldhouse since he became the Wolf Pack coach last December.
“I love the cannon,” Norvell said. “It’s an awesome trophy to play for.”
The cannon will spend this afternoon on the Wolf Pack’s sideline at Mackay Stadium. UNLV, though, beat the Pack at Mackay in 2013 and 2015 and went over to the Pack sideline after the game to collect its 500-pound trophy.
“I can still see it now, those guys carrying the cannon off (in 2015 at Mackay Stadium), seeing them celebrate,” Corbett said. “That still haunts me.”
The Wolf Pack leads the series with UNLV, 25-17, and has won 10 of the last 12 games.
“This game means everything up here in the north,” said Corbett, a Reed High graduate. “It’s something deep down right inside of us. It’s why you go to this school, to play this game. But everybody knows what this game means. You don’t have to be a part of this team to know what this game means.”
“I was told when I got here, ‘You can lose every game but if you (beat UNLV) it’s OK,” defensive end Korey Rush said. “That tells you how big a deal it is. It can really make or break a season. When we lost it in (2015), we ended up winning the Arizona Bowl that year but there was still a dark cloud around our season because we lost this one game.”
“The feeling after (a loss to UNLV) is you feel empty, that you let everybody down,” Wilson said. “It’s more than letting the team down. You let the entire city down. It’s not a good feeling. But when you win, like last year when we wheeled that red cannon off the field, it’s one of the best feelings I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
UNLV’s five victories this season are the most for the program since it won seven in 2013. The Rebels are led by 6-foot-5, 225-pound freshman quarterback Armani Rogers. Rogers has passed for 1,311 yards and six touchdowns and is also seventh in the Mountain West in rushing with 731 yards (seven touchdowns). UNLV running back Lexington Thomas, a 5-9 junior, is third in the Mountain West with 1,273 rushing yards. His 17 touchdowns are second in the league behind Rashaad Penny’s 22 touchdowns for San Diego State.
The Rebels are second in the Mountain West in total offense with 436.5 yards a game thanks to a running game that’s fourth in the conference at 247.1 yards a game.
“Both the quarterback (Rogers) and running back (Thomas) are guys who can make big plays running the football,” Norvell said. “That’s what they like to do. They like to run the ball and control the clock.”
The Wolf Pack has yet to stop one of the top Mountain West rushers this season.
Penny had 222 yards and two touchdowns against the Pack last Saturday and also returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. Hawaii’s Diocemy Saint Juste had 241 yards and a touchdown, Colorado State’s Dalyn Dawkins had 191 yards and a touchdown, Boise State’s Alexander Matteson had 64 yards and two scores on just 12 carries and Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman ran for 92 yards and two scores.
“We’re not taking this team lightly,” Wilson said. “To stop a running quarterback, all 11 guys need to do their job.”
No matter what happens today, the Wolf Pack will finish fourth in the Mountain West’s West Division and UNLV will finish third. It will be the first season since 2013 UNLV finishes ahead of the Wolf Pack.
The Wolf Pack, though, isn’t worried about the Mountain West standings anymore, just like last year when it went down to Las Vegas with a 4-7 overall record.
“Last year (in Las Vegas) we went out there and had nothing on our minds except wheeling that cannon off the field,” Wilson said. “That’s the mentality we need this year.”
“It’s our job to keep (the cannon) blue,” Norvell said.
UNLV has the same goal.
“We know what it’s like to get (the cannon) and pull it over to our sideline after a game and we also know what it’s like to have it pulled away,” Sanchez said. “They are both different emotions and we know which one we prefer.”
Both Norvell and Sanchez talked about firing the Fremont Cannon this week. The cannon, though, hasn’t been fired since it was refurbished after UNLV picked it up, dropped it and damaged it after beating the Pack in 2000.
“Coach Ault talked about when they used to fire it off (after touchdowns),” Norvell said. “I didn’t realize they used to fire it. It would be good to bring that back. Maybe we’ll get Coach Ault on that.”
Sanchez is already making plans for the cannon this January when the city of Las Vegas is scheduled to break ground on its new NFL stadium which will also serve as the new home for the Rebels.
“If we win the cannon we’ll stuff it with gun powder and light that sucker off and blow up the old locker room,” he smiled.