Jay Norvell doesn’t know what life is like as the Nevada Wolf Pack head football coach without the Fremont Cannon.
“It’s been here every day since I’ve been here,” said Norvell, who was hired at Nevada in December 2016. “It sits outside our offices every single day.”
The Fremont Cannon will be at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday (6:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network) when the Pack takes on the Las Vegas Rebels in the 44th game of the Silver State rivalry. The Wolf Pack, a two-touchdown favorite, has won 11 of the last 13 games in the rivalry, the last six in Las Vegas and 26 of the first 43 overall.
“The first time we talk about this game is at the start of our meetings when we start training camp (in August),” said Norvell, who beat the Rebels 23-17 last year at Mackay Stadium to keep the cannon painted blue. “This week we get to play for the state championship.”
UNLV coach Tony Sanchez knows what it’s like to win actual state championships. He won six in a row from 2009-14 as coach of the Bishop Gorman Gaels in Las Vegas, winning 85 of 90 games overall. Sanchez, though, hasn’t had the same success with the Rebels with a 15-32 overall record in four seasons and this week he had to answer questions from the media about his job security.
“Obviously it is not the year you perceived going into the season,” said the 44-year-old Sanchez, whose Rebels are 3-8 overall and 1-6 in the West Division of the Mountain West. “It’s obviously disappointing where we’re at right now.”
Sanchez, who’s 1-2 against the Wolf Pack, winning at Mackay Stadium in 2015, won’t be taking the Rebels to a bowl game this year. The Wolf Pack, 7-4 overall and 5-2 in the Mountain West, have already clinched second place in the West Division and will be going to a bowl next month for the first time since 2015.
“This game means a lot to us and the university,” said UNLV running back Lexington Thomas, who’s second in the Mountain West at 93.3 rushing yards a game (1,026 yards and 12 touchdowns overall). “We just want to get the cannon back. This is our bowl week.”
Norvell’s first Wolf Pack team last year, which finished 3-9, also treated last year’s Rebel game as its bowl game. The Pack won on a 1-yard touchdown run by Kelton Moore with just under eight minutes to play. It was the Pack’s first Fremont Cannon victory at Mackay Stadium since 2011. UNLV has similar motivations this year. The Rebels haven’t beaten the Wolf Pack at Sam Boyd Stadium since 2004 and need a victory on Saturday to salvage its season and possibly save their coach’s job.
“This is Reno week,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got to knuckle up.”
Referring to the Wolf Pack as “Reno” is also another aspect of this rivalry. Sanchez, like most everyone south of Tonopah, never refers to the Wolf Pack as the University of Nevada or simply Nevada. The Wolf Pack, to them, is always “Reno” or “UNR.”
Norvell, who obviously has been schooled about the rivalry from former Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault (who spoke to the Pack players on Monday), sent a stern message down south at his weekly press conference on Monday.
“We’ve played football at the University of Nevada since 1898,” Norvell said. “This school has played in five different conferences and has played in 16 (Division I-AA) playoff games and 15 bowl games. We’ve won 14 conference championships. We are the University of Nevada. It’s important to remember that.”
This week’s game would’ve been the 50th in the rivalry if the two schools had played each other every season since the rivalry began on Thanksgiving Day in 1969 (a 30-28 Pack win). But the Pack and Rebels didn’t play each other from 1980-82 and in 1984, 1986 and 1988. Since the rivalry became an annual event in 1989, though, the Pack has dominated the Rebels, winning 21 of 29 games and outscoring the Rebels by an average of 22 points in the 21 victories.
“We have an opportunity to add to our tradition (on Saturday),” Norvell said. “You know, I’ve played for a lot of different trophies in my career. But we play for probably the most significant trophy in college football. It’s special.”
The Wolf Pack players don’t want to leave the cannon in Las Vegas on Saturday.
“To see it in the hallway everyday when we go to meetings is amazing,” senior linebacker Malik Reed said. “It makes you want to not let it go.”
Ault, who won his last eight games as Pack coach against UNLV to finish with a 15-7 record in the Fremont Cannon game, reminded the current Pack players and coaches this week what beating UNLV means to the community.
“It really got us fired up,” Wolf Pack linebacker Lucas Weber said. “He must have been a real cool guy to play for. He has so much energy and passion.”
The Rebels have had just four winning seasons since 1986 and have won as many as eight games in a season just once (8-5 in 2000) since 1984. The Wolf Pack will win its eighth game this season with a victory on Saturday.
“Going into this season we wanted to win eight games,” Norvell said. “We couldn’t say it publicly until now but that was our goal all along.”
The Pack, which has won four games in a row, hasn’t won eight games in a season since it went 13-1 in 2010. This would also be its first season of eight or more victories since joining the Mountain West in 2012. This year’s five conference victories is also a Pack school record as a member of the Mountain West.
“It’s the difference between good and great,” Reed said. “We have a chance to win eight or nine games (with a bowl victory) and that would separate us from being good to becoming great.”
The Rebels have played better the past two weeks coming off a 50-37 loss to winless (at the time) San Jose State and 48-3 loss to Fresno State. The Rebels two weeks ago won at San Diego State, 27-24, in the biggest upset of the year so far in the Mountain West and last week lost at Hawaii just 35-28 after building a 21-3 lead.
Rebel quarterback Armani Rogers, Sanchez said, will likely start on Saturday for the first time in six weeks. Rogers, who injured his foot in Week 4, came off the bench last week at Hawaii for his first game action in almost two months. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore, has rushed for 519 yards and six touchdowns this season and passed for 429 yards and seven touchdowns in just five games this season. Sanchez, though, also said Max Gilliam, who passed for 1,383 yards and 14 touchdowns in Rogers’ absence, will also see playing time on Saturday, especially if the Wolf Pack gets out to a big lead.
“Somebody (on defense) has to account for the quarterback,” Reed said. “That’s pretty much how you take care of him.”
The Rebels, with Rogers on the field, will want to run the ball. UNLV is second in the Mountain West at 224.2 rushing yards a game. The Wolf Pack defense, though, is third in the Mountain West, holding opponents to just 126.9 rushing yards a game.
“We play well when we run the ball well,” Sanchez said.
Rogers rushed for 49 yards on 23 carries and was 12-of-23 for 160 yards through the air last season in his first Pack-Rebels game. The Wolf Pack outgained the Rebels a year ago, 411-324 (in 10 fewer plays on offense) as Moore ran for 109 yards and quarterback Ty Gangi passed for 266 yards on 24 completions.
Norvell said that victory a year ago carried over into this season for the Pack.
“The way we played that game was significant,” Norvell said. “We played hard-nosed defense and we ran the ball well. That game put a building block in place and led to our success this year.”
“Last year was a really big win for us,” Weber said. “Things just kind of started clicking for us after that. It gave us a lot of hope going into this year.”
Norvell could become the first Wolf Pack coach to beat UNLV two games in a row since Ault did it eight straight games from 2005-12. Jeff Tisdel, who was a perfect 4-0 against UNLV from 1996-99 and Jerry Scattini (1972-73) are the only other Pack coaches (other than Ault) to beat UNLV at least two times in a row. Ault had two separate winning streaks of at least two in a row against UNLV, winning four in a row from 1989-92 and his eight-game streak (2005-12) to end his coaching career.
“College football is about winning and tradition,” Norvell said. “We have a lot to live up to as a program.”