RENO — Jay Norvell had some very specific plans for the Fremont Cannon on Saturday.
“We told our players before the game that we wanted to win the game, take a picture of the scoreboard with the cannon and that we wanted to put the cannon back outside our offices on Monday,” the Wolf Pack coach said.
The Wolf Pack players followed orders, beating the UNLV Rebels, 23-16, and keeping the cannon blue and on campus for the second consecutive season. A crowd of just 17,359, the smallest to watch a Fremont Cannon game at Mackay Stadium since 1989, saw the Wolf Pack beat the Rebels at home for the first time since 2011.
“That shows we were confident that we were going to show that we were the better team,” said Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi, referring to Norvell’s pre-game plans to take a celebration photo with the cannon after the game. “The whole game, all we were saying was, ‘We have to keep the cannon. We can’t lose the cannon.’”
The Wolf Pack has now won 11 of its last 13 games against UNLV. The two losses during that stretch, though, were both at Mackay Stadium, in 2013 and 2015.
“This is huge,” said Gangi, who engineered two touchdown drives late in the second half to wipe out a 16-9 UNLV lead. “We kept the cannon blue and we kept it where it belongs.”
Gangi completed 24-of-33 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns and running back Kelton Moore ran for 109 yards and the game-winning 1-yard touchdown with 7:34 to play, breaking a 16-16 tie. But it was a play by the defense that seemed to turn the game around for the Wolf Pack.
The Rebels led 16-9 and were facing a 4th-and-1 play at the Wolf Pack 9-yard line with just over four minutes to play in the third quarter. Instead of attempting a short field goal, hoping to extend the lead beyond a touchdown, the Rebels chose to go for the first down. Wolf Pack defensive end Korey Rush, though, stopped Rebel running back Lexington Thomas for no gain.
“It was a big play,” Rush said. “The linebackers flew to the ball, the whole defense was great. The unsung hero on plays like that is Hausia Sekona. He plays a true nose tackle and he does a great job of holding the point so the rest of us can make plays.”
The play seemed to breathe life into the Pack offense and the entire stadium.
“Football is a game of emotions and I think the momentum shifted after that play,” said Gangi, who is now 2-0 against UNLV as a Wolf Pack starting quarterback.
“That really was the turning point of the game,” said Norvell of Rush’s tackle on Thomas late in the third quarter.
Gangi and the offense took advantage of the momentum shift almost immediately. The junior quarterback put together an efficient 10-play, 91-yard drive to tie the game at 16-16 with just 41 seconds to play in the third quarter.
Moore ran the ball three times for 16 yards on the drive and Gangi completed three-of-four passes for 35 yards, including the 6-yard touchdown pass to Trevion Armstong in the back of the end zone right in front of the goal post. A trick play — a wide receiver pass by Andrew Celis to McLane Mannix — also netted 28 yards down to the Rebel 22-yard line on the fifth play of the drive.
“A lot of times the offense didn’t do what we needed to do and we made a lot of mistakes,” said Gangi, who opened the scoring against the Rebels with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Wyatt Demps on the Pack’s third offensive play of the game. “But we did what we needed to do when we needed to do it.”
The Wolf Pack defense forced two punts on UNLV’s first two drives of the fourth quarter as Rush and Austin Paulhus took turns sacking Rebel quarterback Armani Rogers. Gangi and Moore then took turns moving the Pack offense down the field for the game-winning touchdown.
Gangi found Celis for gains of 27 and 15 yards on the first two plays of the drive, which started at the Wolf Pack 39-yard line with 10:52 to play. Moore took over from there, picking up 17 yards on four carries, including the 1-yard touchdown for a 23-16 Pack lead. The drive also featured a strange and risky lateral pass from Gangi back to offensive tackle Austin Corbett that lost a yard back to the UNLV 11-yard line on the fourth play of the drive.
“I was mad that didn’t go for a touchdown,” smiled Gangi. “It was kind of a fun play.”
The Pack defense seemed to have the most fun against the Rebels. The Wolf Pack held the Rebels to just 324 total yards, the second fewest yards by a Pack opponent this year behind the 302 San Jose State gained at Mackay Stadium two weeks ago. The Pack sacked Rogers three times and held him to just 160 yards through the air on 12-of-23 passing. The Rebels also averaged just 3.3 yards on 50 carries (164 total yards) on the ground.
“They like to run the ball and keep the ball away from you,” Norvell said. “Our defense has had a tough time lately. They haven’t played particularly well. But, boy, did they come up big (Saturday).”
UNLV took its 16-9 lead on a 12-yard touchdown run by Rogers and three field goals (24, 37 and 53 yards) by Evan Pantels. The Wolf Pack defense, though, held UNLV without a point on the Rebels’ last four drives of the game.
“The pressure on their quarterback was real important,” Norvell said. “This quarterback (Rogers) is a very dangerous guy, especially when he gets into the open field.”
Rogers ran the ball 23 times for just 49 net yards. The Wolf Pack had seven tackles for 30 yards in losses, led by Rush’s three tackles for a loss and two by Patrick Choudja.
“This season wasn’t what we wanted it to be but it’s great that we ended it on a great note,” Rush said.
The Wolf Pack’s season (3-9 overall, 3-5 in the Mountain West) ends without a bowl invitation for the second consecutive year. UNLV (5-7, 4-4) fell a game short of earning a bowl invitation thanks to the loss to the Wolf Pack.
“It was all about the cannon but the fact that they aren’t going to a bowl because of us is kind of like a little cherry on top,” Rush said.