RENO —The Nevada Wolf Pack’s regular season ended Saturday afternoon with a sidelines-clearing brawl and another stunning loss to the UNLV Rebels that will leave the Fremont Cannon painted red for yet another year.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong after a 33-30 overtime loss to UNLV at Mackay Stadium. “We know the community really cares about this game and to not come out with a win, it hurts.”
A thin crowd of 16,683, the smallest to witness a Wolf Pack-Rebel game at Mackay Stadium since 1989, saw UNLV quarterback Kenyon Oblad find a wide-open Steve Jenkins down the middle for a 19-yard game-winning touchdown in the first overtime.
“Our defense busted coverage on that,” said Jay Norvell, who lost to UNLV for the second time in three games as Wolf Pack coach. “That was a big play by them.”
The Oblad-to-Jenkins touchdown, on a 3rd-and-four pass, ended the first overtime game in the history of the Silver State rivalry. It also leaves the Wolf Pack 7-5 overall and in third place in the West Division of the Mountain West at 4-4 with a bowl game to be announced next weekend. UNLV, which was playing its final game for fired coach Tony Sanchez, saw its season end at 4-8, 2-6.
“We just didn’t do enough to win,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack fell behind 17-0 after one quarter and didn’t take its first lead until Brandon Talton’s 42-yard field goal in overtime for a 30-27 advantage. “It was an emotional game.”
Those emotions, unfortunately, ended up marring the afternoon. After Jenkins scored to win the game some of the Rebels ran in front of the Wolf Pack bench, pointing and yelling at the Pack players and coaches. A brawl between the two teams then suddenly broke out behind them in the south end zone, with players swinging helmets and fists as some fans tossed snowballs and other objects at the players and coaches below.
“I don’t really even know what happened, to be honest,” Norvell said. “So I can’t even speak about it. I just know that their whole team ran over to us on our side. I know that because I was standing there when they did it.”
The incident was reminiscent of the fights between the Rebels and Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium before and after the Pack’s 55-32 win in 1995.
“Everybody is an adult,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack unveiled new all-back uniforms against the Rebels. “Everybody is responsible for their own actions. Win or lose, there’s never an excuse to act that way. But it’s a football game. It’s competitive. There are a lot of emotions.”
“When you see everybody go on the field like that, you just want to have your teammates’ back,” Strong said. “Then it just escalated.”
UNLV has now beaten the Wolf Pack for the second year in a row for the first time since it won five in a row from 2000-04. And the Oblad-to-Jenkins game-winning pass was just the last of a series of big plays that hurt the Wolf Pack.
Charles Williams exploded up the middle for an 80-yard touchdown run for a 10-0 Rebel lead in the first quarter. Oblad found Mekhi Stevenson on a 32-yard touchdown pass for a 17-0 lead also in the first quarter and the freshman quarterback also connected with Jenkins on a 75-yard scoring strike for a 24-13 Rebel lead late in the second quarter. Daniel Gutierrez also kicked a pivotal 50-yard field to give the Rebels a 27-13 lead with nine minutes to go in the game.
Norvell, though, said his team never panicked, despite trailing the entire game until Devonte Lee’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:32 to play tied the score at 27-27. The Wolf Pack trailed 27-13 late in the fourth quarter until Strong found Dominic Christian on a 24-yard touchdown pass with 6:47 to play to start the comeback.
“I really wasn’t concerned at that time,” said Norvell of the 17-0 hole the Pack found itself in to start the second quarter. “I just felt we needed to get settled down. I just wanted us to stay focused and poised and execute.”
Strong, who passed for a career-high 351 yards, completing 33-of-54 passes without an interception, said the Wolf Pack remained confident throughout the game despite the uphill battle.
“We felt like we were going to win the whole time,” said Strong, who sat out last year as a red-shirt when the Pack blew a 23-0 lead at UNLV before losing 34-29. “I put this (the loss) on me. I made my fair share of mistakes.”
Strong actually played his best game in a Wolf Pack uniform. The Vacaville, Calif., native led the Wolf Pack 74 yards on 10 plays as the Pack started cutting into UNLV’s 17-0 lead with a 2-yard touchdown run by Lee in the second quarter. The Pack offense then had to settle for a pair of field goals by Talton (27, 31 yards) as the Pack drew within 17-13 with three minutes to go.
Oblad and Jenkins, though, stole all of the momentum right back immediately, connecting on a 75-yard scoring pass on the Rebels’ very first play after Talton’s second field goal to take a 24-13 lead at halftime.
Strong, who now has a 5-4 record as the starting quarterback, rallied the Wolf Pack, completing 24-of-38 passes for 223 yards in the second half.
“I was proud of the way Carson responded and competed all the way to the end,” Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack lost despite piling up more first downs (28-15) and yards (459-412) than UNLV and dominating the time of possession. The Pack had the ball for more than nine minutes (34:47-25:13) than UNLV and also had almost twice as many offensive plays (91-56).
“They (all losses) all hurt,” said Norvell, whose Pack saw its three-game winning streak end. “We’re not happy. We don’t like to lose. But we’ll come back. This is the reason you play the game because nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
UNLV has now won three of the last four games in the rivalry at Mackay Stadium. The last time that happened was when UNLV beat the Pack in Reno three consecutive times in 1975, 1977 and 1979 in between Pack wins in Reno in 1973 and 1985.
“This is really tough,” said Pack running back Toa Taua, who gained just 43 yards on 15 carries. “They just made better plays than we did. It definitely hurts. We wanted the cannon.”
The cannon will now spend another year in southern Nevada. Sanchez, who finished his UNLV career with a 20-40 record, ended up 3-2 against the Wolf Pack.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t have any explosive plays,” said Norvell, who is now 18-19 as the Wolf Pack’s head coach since 2017. “We now have to live with what happened today until we get a chance to change it. That’s the reality of it.”