Joe Santoro: UNLV is the season for Nevada Wolf Pack | NevadaAppeal.com
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Joe Santoro: UNLV is the season for Nevada Wolf Pack

The Nevada Wolf Pack’s football season is on the line Saturday night in Las Vegas. And we’re not talking about the Mountain West standings.

A loss to the UNLV Rebels, after all, certainly would not eliminate the Pack from championship consideration. One loss, especially in Week 2 in the most forgiving conference in the nation, means almost nothing. We’re talking about the Fremont Cannon. We’re talking about the heart and soul of every Wolf Pack fan. We’re talking about the only regular season game that truly matters on this year’s schedule. The Pack has already lost the last two games to the Rebels in horror movie fashion. Given the opponent, the trophy at stake and the series of events that led to the losses, well, those were two of the most horrific losses in school history. A third consecutive loss will be devastating. It simply cannot happen. Yes, we understand that Pack athletic director Doug Knuth would probably give coach Jay Norvell another two years added to his contract if he loses this Saturday night. But Knuth and Norvell aren’t Pack fans. They are only in Nevada because Nevada is the school that was willing to slap an impressive title on their resume. They talk a good game (it’s how you get that impressive title) but they don’t fully understand what a red Fremont Cannon means to Wolf Pack fans. If they did they would have written a personal letter with pen and paper to every former living Wolf Pack player and coach, as well as every single living Nevada graduate, apologizing for the unspeakable losses to the Rebels the last two years. That cannon better be in Northern Nevada by Sunday morning. And it better be painted blue by Sunday night.

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UNLV is 4-3 against the Wolf Pack since Chris Ault retired as Nevada coach after the 2012 season. Ault won his last eight games and 13 of his last 15 against UNLV. From 1989 through 2012, minus the four dark years when Chris Tormey was head coach (2000-03), the Pack went 18-2 against UNLV. Ault, who used to get physically ill just seeing UNLV’s colors unless he was interviewing to be their head coach, knew what a red Fremont Cannon meant to Wolf Pack fans. I’m an old man and never was good at math but I’m pretty sure a red cannon means that one of every three Wolf Pack fans will go chukar hunting the entire next football season instead of going to Mackay Stadium. To put that 4-3 UNLV record against Nevada the past seven years in perspective, keep in mind that UNLV has gone 15-33 against every other Mountain West team combined over that same time period. The Rebels have gone 25-55 overall against teams not named Nevada. Also keep in mind that those 55 wins the Rebels handed other teams didn’t include the best trophy in all of college football as the prize. Those teams just pounded the Rebels because, well, the alternative would have been embarrassing and unthinkable, like it used to be in Northern Nevada before Brian Polian and Norvell got a fancy title attached to their resume.

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The Wolf Pack, of course, should whip the Rebels something along the lines of 42-20. It could be 54-7 if the Wolf Pack really wants to make a statement. The Wolf Pack offense is that good and the Rebels offense and defense is, well, that much in disarray right now. This is not an easy season for anyone in college football, given the daily changes, aggravations, restrictions and frustrations that COVID-19 has dumped on everyone. But the Rebels might have it tougher than most this year. UNLV has a rookie head coach (Marcus Arroyo) who is learning on the job trying to rebuild one of the worst Division I-A football programs in NCAA history from the ground up. A new coach in a new program always has great challenges (see Norvell in 2017). But imagine doing that without spring football, with an erratic and disjointed practice schedule and a shifting roster during a time when players are getting tested multiple times a week and fearful of their health. And now you have to go out and win football games? Arroyo has taken on a challenge that would make Bear Bryant cringe.

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The Rebels playing their home games at the $2 billion Allegiant Stadium is almost laughable. The Las Vegas Raiders, the reason the stadium was built, won’t even allow the Rebels to play on their field. UNLV has to play on plastic grass that will cover the Raiders natural grass field. In other words the Rebels are like a six-week-old puppy who isn’t allowed on the carpet unless the carpet is covered with four layers of newspaper. How, exactly, are the Rebels ever going to have a home field advantage in a 65,000-seat stadium? This is a program that struggled to fill half of the 35,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium. The Wolf Pack might win more games at Allegiant Stadium this year than the Rebels.

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The Mountain West will likely come down to a four-team race between Boise State, Nevada and San Diego State and the winner of Friday night’s Hawaii at Wyoming game. While anything can happen in this COVID-19 season, it’s difficult to predict Boise State losing a regular-season game. The Broncos, as usual, are that good and well coached and their schedule is that soft. Boise State will also play just seven league games and none of those games will be against Nevada or San Diego State. The Wolf Pack’s path to the conference title game on Dec. 19, therefore, will likely be decided by two games: San Diego State at Nevada on Nov. 21 and Nevada at Hawaii on Nov. 28.

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I understand that Los Angeles believes that it is now, with apologies to Green Bay, the new Titletown USA. But come on. Congratulations to L.A. for winning the NBA championship and World Series roughly two weeks apart but, really, those were fake, made-for-TV championships. They are the sit-com of championships. And we’re not even talking Seinfeld or Cheers. Those were Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 2 Broke Girls sit-com championships. The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays. Nobody takes the Heat and Rays seriously, even in Florida. The Dodgers won their title in front of a crowd that resembled the gathering that UNLV used to play for at Sam Boyd. Half the Southern California Dodger fans were probably really there because they were actually scouting for a new place to live in Texas. The Lakers won in a building that looks like it is normally reserved for Disney workers to change into their Mickey Mouse and Goofy costumes. A championship is a championship – it’s better than not winning – but it’s not the same. Not all championships are created equal.

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Justin Turner should be suspended for acting like a disobedient teenager and Kevin Cash should be made to wear a Goofy costume and prance around Disney World for a week. I understand Turner wanting to celebrate with his Dodger teammates on the field after winning the World Series but it was a careless, selfish, immature, stupid act. Turner, who was removed from the game that night because he tested positive for the coronavirus, knowingly jeopardized the health and safety of his teammates and coaches as well the players’ wives and children who were also on the field. Cash made one of the greatest blunders in World Series history when he took starting pitcher Blake Snell out of the game with one out in the sixth inning simply because the Dodgers lineup was about to see Snell for their third at-bats. Snell had allowed just two hits and had struck out nine through 5.1 innings. The next three Dodger hitters due up (Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Turner) were a combined 0-for-6 with six strikeouts. Snell, a former Cy Young winner, had only thrown 73 pitches. The Rays were winning 1-0. It was the freaking World Series, not a mid-April game against the Seattle Mariners. Cash jumped out of the dugout and took Snell out of the game before he even got to the mound. This was an example of baseball analytics gone horribly wrong. Imagine if Cash would have done that to Bob Gibson in the middle of April, let alone in Game 6 of the World Series. Talk about jeopardizing your health and safety.