Pressure of rivalry game falls on Pack, Polian | NevadaAppeal.com

Pressure of rivalry game falls on Pack, Polian

Sports fodder for a Friday morning … The Nevada Wolf Pack simply has to beat the UNLV Rebels on Saturday at Mackay Stadium. Coach Brian Polian, who lost at home in his Battle for the Fremont Cannon debut in 2013, cannot lose two games in a row to the Rebels at home. All of the pressure is on the Pack and Polian this weekend. There is no pressure on the Rebels. There is never any pressure on the Rebels to actually win a game. If the Rebels lose by just 34 points to UCLA, after all, they want to build a new practice facility just to honor the accomplishment. But the standards are different in northern Nevada. The mystique of former coach Chris Ault will be hovering over the stadium. The Pack expects to beat UNLV. Every single year.

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If you are waiting for Polian to get as excited about the Pack-Rebels rivalry as Ault was, well, stop waiting. It’s likely never going to happen. Ault played at Nevada. He coached at UNLV and Nevada. He coached Nevada high school football. He almost became the Rebels head coach in 1994. The rivalry flowed through his veins. Before he came to northern Nevada in 2013, Polian probably thought the Battle for the Fremont Cannon was an old Bonanza episode. And who can blame him? He was weaned on much bigger and more intense games than Pack-Rebels. As the son of a NFL executive he was raised on Super Bowls and NFL playoff games. As a coach he was part of Stanford-Cal, Notre Dame-USC, Notre Dame against anybody, Texas A&M-Texas, Texas A&M-Arkansas, LSU and everyone else from the state of Texas. So forgive him if he doesn’t go around threatening anyone in town who dares to wear red. That was Ault’s thing. Polian is all about doing Polian’s thing. Give him time to find his own UNLV thing.

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Rookie Rebels coach Tony Sanchez, though, already seems to enjoy the rivalry. Sanchez told a story this week of how one of his players and one of his assistant coaches took off their shirts in a team meeting just because those shirts were Wolf Pack blue. Sanchez then also referred to the Wolf Pack as the “University of Reno, Nevada.” That is pure Ault right there. Sanchez and Ault have a lot in common. Both were Nevada high school coaches. Both got their first head coaching job in college because they were friendly with boosters. Both seem to be excellent salesmen. Sanchez also joked this week that he hopes he doesn’t get hit with a bottle on Saturday the way former UNLV coach John Robinson did a little over a decade ago at Mackay Stadium. So in one week Sanchez insulted the Wolf Pack colors, the Wolf Pack’s name and the Wolf Pack fans. That’s how you sell a rivalry. Ault would be proud.

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The Polian-Sanchez era has the potential to be the most intense this rivalry has seen since Ault went up against Jeff Horton in 1994 and 1995. Polian and Sanchez are two young coaches looking to establish themselves. Sanchez seems to have all the support and money he needs to get the Rebels pointed in the right direction. He’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon. Most of the Rebel coaches since 1990 barely knew the Wolf Pack was also in the state of Nevada. But Sanchez knows. He used to come to Reno, after all, to win high school state titles. The other reason this rivalry could heat up now is because of the boosters. It has been well documented how connected Sanchez is to the UNLV boosters. And Polian is smart enough to know that losing to UNLV is one of the few things that can get you fired in Reno. Wolf Pack boosters can tolerate a lot of losing unless, of course, that losing involves the cannon being painted red.

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Beating Arizona two weeks ago would have been much more meaningful to Polian and the Pack than beating UNLV. Beating UNLV is no great accomplishment. Everyone beats UNLV. But the Pack didn’t come close to a sell out against Arizona and the fans barely were heard from during the game after their heroes fell behind 14-0 early. The Rebel game is, without question, the most important game on the Pack schedule every year for the fans. Mackay will be filled. Pack fans will be confident of victory. If there’s one thing Pack fans love to do, it’s hate on everything connected with Las Vegas. Ault knew that as well as anybody. It’s why he always fueled that Las Vegas hatred (when he secretly had a soft spot in his heart for the school and was friendly with many of their boosters) and probably why he didn’t take the Rebels job in 1994.

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UNLV, it seems, will come to Mackay this weekend a confident bunch. The Rebels are coming off an 80-8 win over Idaho State. Now, beating Idaho State by 72 is sort of like rescuing a kitten from the animal shelter and then bringing it home and forcing it to share a bed with a pit bull you’ve been starving for six days. It’s downright cruel. But we get it. The Rebels needed to pound somebody to build their confidence and, well, that’s why the Big Sky Conference exists. It’s just there to make the Mountain West feel good about itself. Also, running up the score on weaker opponents is sort of a Sanchez thing. See Bishop Gorman, 2009-14. Boise State, it must be noted, only beat Idaho State by 52 this year. Boise State, though, doesn’t need to flex its muscles against Idaho State in order to feel good about itself.

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We will find out a lot about this Wolf Pack team on Saturday. After beating a couple of mediocre-to-bad teams (UC Davis, Buffalo) and losing convincingly to a couple of good-but-not-great teams (Texas A&M, Arizona) we still don’t know much about this Pack team. Is the defense overrated? Can the offense bury an opponent? If the Pack is indeed serious about winning the weak Mountain West, it needs to dominate the Rebels at home. Wolf Pack 38, UNLV 24 should do it. Since 1985 that is why UNLV football exists. To make the Wolf Pack feel good about itself.