The coveted Fremont Cannon trophy. Photo courtesy of the University of Nevada, Reno
The Nevada Wolf Pack spent the past week forgetting recent history and remembering ancient history all at the same time.
The Wolf Pack began the week trying to forget last week’s heartbreaking 34-32 loss at Fresno State.
“We have to put that behind us,” head coach Jay Norvell said. “We have to move on from that.”
Norvell, though, also wanted his Wolf Pack this week to appreciate and savor the 52-year history of the school’s biggest rivalry game. The Pack, 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the Mountain West, will host the winless UNLV Rebels (0-7, 0-3) this Friday night (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network) at Mackay Stadium in the 47th edition of the Battle for the Fremont Cannon game.
“It’s important for them to understand how much this game means to the program, the university and the region,” Norvell said.
Norvell, as he always does the week of the Rebel game, had former head coach Chris Ault talk his team about the meaning and significance of the storied Rebel game. Ault, who retired after the 2012 season, was 15-7 against UNLV in his career, winning 13 of his last 15 cannon contests. His cannon speeches, though, have only inspired the Pack players to a 2-2 record for Norvell against the Rebels.
“It’s our state championship,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack whipped UNLV 37-19 last year in the first college football game ever played at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium, though few fans could attend the game because of COVID-19 restrictions. “I feel it as a personal responsibility to represent this program. We are the University of Nevada. We take it seriously.”
The Fremont Cannon, which has been won 27 times by the Wolf Pack and 19 times by UNLV, is not the only prize at stake this Friday night. The Pack needs the victory to stay in the hunt with San Diego State (7-0, 3-0) and Fresno State (6-2, 3-1) for the West Division championship. The Rebels, losers of 13 in a row, will likely treat this game as their bowl game. With just five games remaining this season UNLV, which hasn’t won a game since it beat the Pack 33-30 in overtime on Nov. 30, 2019, at Mackay, cannot become eligible for an actual bowl game.
“Last year (against Nevada) everybody was just worried about COVID, who was going to test positive, who could play,” UNLV cornerback Aaron Lewis said. “You didn’t get the feel of the rivalry game. But this year you really feel it. It‘s important to us.”
This year’s Rebel team, at 0-7, will bring its worst record ever into the state rivalry game. The 1996 Rebels were 0-5 and three other UNLV teams were 0-4. The 1972 Rebels were 1-9, the 1996 Rebels were 1-6, the 2012 Rebels were 1-5 and the 2014 Rebels were 2-10.
UNLV has only brought a winning record into 14 of the previous 46 meetings with the Pack. This will be the 23rd time the Pack has had a winning record entering the rivalry game.
Norvell, of course, doesn’t want his players to look at UNLV’s record this week. The 2018 and 2019 Rebels were both 3-8 and then beat Norvell’s Pack.
“The records don’t matter,” Norvell said. “The first year I was here (2017) we won just three games and when we beat UNLV it made our season. And then one year we won eight games (2018) and we lost to UNLV and we felt like we didn’t accomplish anything.”
A win on Friday would definitely make the Rebels’ season. It would snap a 13-game losing streak, it would be head coach Marcus Arroyo’s first win at UNLV and it would mean the Fremont Cannon would head back to Las Vegas.
UNLV has won three of its last four games at Mackay Stadium, winning in 2013, 2015 and 2019 and losing in 2017. The two teams have split the last eight games in the rivalry, with the home team (Nevada in 2017, UNLV in 2018) winning just two of those games.
“I remember my junior year (in 2019) when we won,” said UNLV running back Charles Williams, who needs 80 yards to break Tim Cornett’s career rushing record at UNLV of 3,733 yards. “We want that feeling again.”
The only feelings UNLV has had lately are frustration and disappointment. Five of the Rebels’ seven losses this year have come by eight points or less. UNLV has also played a much tougher schedule this year than the Pack. The Rebels’ seven opponents this year are now a combined 40-13 while the Wolf Pack’s seven opponents are 21-31.
“I know we’re crushed,” said Arroyo, who has a record of 3-9 against Nevada combined as a player (San Jose State, 1998-2002), assistant coach (San Jose State, Wyoming, California, Oregon) and head coach (UNLV). “We feel like we’re matched up. We have to look at how we finish a game.”
The last time the Rebels finished a game on a positive note was two years ago when quarterback Kenyon Oblad connected with Steve Jenkins on a 19-yard touchdown pass over the middle to beat the Pack at Mackay in overtime. The two teams then erupted into an ugly brawl on the field that even involved the fans behind the end zone. Since that game, however, UNLV has gone 0-13 while Nevada has gone 12-5.
Norvell, though, said his Wolf Pack will be as hungry for a victory as the Rebels Friday night.
“When you lose you have a desperation to win,” said Norvell, “When you don’t have the cannon (like UNLV) you have that. But we just lost (at Fresno State). It was a gut-wrenching way to lose a game. We have a real desperation to win. We‘ll be hungry to play.”
UNLV’s quarterback on Friday will be freshman Cameron Friel. Friel completed 20-of-28 passes in the Rebels’ 27-20 loss to San Jose State on Oct. 21 for 240 yards despite absorbing five sacks. He drove the Rebels 72 yards on 19 plays, picking up five first downs along the way, before getting sacked on the game’s final play from the San Jose State 11-yard line. The Rebels led in the game 17-3 in the second quarter.
“They show talent,” Norvell said of UNLV. “They show physicality, they have playmakers. The last (four) weeks they’ve played toe to toe with people. They just haven’t put it all together yet. And we certainly don’t want them to figure it out against us.”
Norvell, whose Wolf Pack will become bowl eligible with a win over UNLV, knows the Rebels will likely treat Friday night as their state championship, bowl game and season-saving moment all rolled into one.
“We’re going to get the best UNLV team we’ve seen,” Norvell said. “The two teams in the state will get to play for a trophy like the Fremont Cannon. It’s just unique.
“But we also know you don’t play the team you see on film (the UNLV team that has lost 13 in a row). You play the team that shows up on Friday night.”
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