The Nevada Wolf Pack football team had a 550-pound visitor in its locker room this past week.
“We moved the Fremont Cannon from upstairs down into our locker room on Sunday night,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. “We have a lot of youngsters on this football team, a lot of players who are not from this state. I wanted them to know what a big deal this is.”
The Fremont Cannon, which goes to the winner of the Wolf Pack-UNLV Rebels game each year, has lived at the Wolf Pack’s Cashell Fieldhouse for the past eight years. The Wolf Pack is hoping to extend that streak to nine years with a victory Saturday afternoon (3:05 p.m.) at Mackay Stadium against the Rebels.
“Nobody on this team has ever seen that cannon painted red,” Wolf Pack defensive lineman Jordan Hanson said. “We’ve never seen it any color other than blue. Our whole goal is to make sure that doesn’t change.”
The Wolf Pack, which owns a 23-15 edge in the Silver State rivalry dating back to 1969, has never lost to the Rebels since former head coach Chris Ault invented the pistol offense in 2005. The pistol has helped the Wolf Pack outscore UNLV on average 39-19 and out gain them on average 534-314 over the last eight games. The Pack has used five different starting quarterbacks (Jeff Rowe, Nick Graziano, Colin Kaepernick, Cody Fajardo and Devin Combs) during the streak but the result has always been the same.
The cannon has remained blue.
“The last thing we want to see is the cannon turn red,” Hanson said.
The Pack’s 23 victories in the rivalry have gone to just four head coaches. Jeff Horton won one game, Jerry Scattini won three, Jeff Tisdel won four and Ault won 15. Polian is hoping to become the fifth Pack coach to keep the cannon blue.
“I first heard about this game the day I got here,” said Polian, who was named the Pack head coach in January. “The first time I walked into the building (Cashell) they took me right to the cannon. At first, I don’t think I understood how strong the feelings up here in the north are about this game. But every time I went out in public, the fans reminded me how important it was. That’s fun. That’s pretty cool.”
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, who is 0-3 in the Battle for the Fremont Cannon, also knows how important this game is to the state.
“We consider this the most important game on our schedule,” Hauck said.
“It’s a big rivalry game,” UNLV defensive lineman Tyler Gaston said. “There’s no other game like it. We can’t lose this game.”
Both teams will wear their dark home jerseys on Saturday in front of what is expected to be a sold out (29,993) Mackay Stadium.
“I know how much this game means to everyone up here in the north,” Polian said.
“Rivalry games are part of what makes college football so great. I've been fortunate to be part of great rivalries like Notre Dame-USC and Stanford-Cal. And those were great rivalries. But when you go to Nevada or UNLV, this is your USC-Notre Dame. It means just as much.”
The Wolf Pack has usually had an easy time against UNLV during its eight-game winning streak in the rivalry. The Pack won 31-3 in 2006 behind Rowe and running back Brandon Fragger, it won 63-28 in 2009 behind Mike Ball’s five touchdown runs and 37-0 in 2011 as the Pack defense held UNLV to just seven first downs and a mere 110 total yards.
But not all of the victories during the streak have been easy. It took a Nick Graziano-to-Kyle Sammons 43-yard touchdown pass with 27 seconds to go to beat UNLV 27-20 in 2007. Brett Jaekle had to kick three field goals to beat the Rebels 22-14 in 2005 and last year the Wolf Pack rallied from a 28-7 second-quarter deficit to beat the Rebels 42-37 in Las Vegas behind Combs.
Polian also doesn’t expect an easy time on Saturday.
“This is not the UNLV that people have gotten used to seeing,” Polian said. “This is a different UNLV team.”
The Rebels, at 4-3 overall and 2-1 in the Mountain West, will actually have the better record at kickoff on Saturday. The Pack, losers of two in a row on the road at San Diego State and Boise State are 3-4, 2-2.
“I feel sorry no matter who our next opponent is, whether it’s UNLV or not,” Fajardo said. “We are going to come out and play with an attitude and play a little chippy.”
UNLV could be without starting running back Tim Cornett. Cornett, who has rushed for 139 yards over the last three seasons against the Pack, is UNLV’s all-time leading rusher with 3,158 yards. The 6-foot, 210-pound senior, who has rushed for 709 yards and nine touchdowns this year, injured his right knee in a 38-14 loss at Fresno State last Saturday.
If Cornett is unavailable on Saturday, Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, who has 359 yards and two touchdowns this year on just 37 carries, is expected to get the bulk of the carries.
“Without him, they become a little bit faster,” Polian said. “Cornett is going to pound you downhill. Lawrence is the speed guy. But that doesn’t matter. We learned last week that when you knock out the starter the other guys is just as good.”
Boise State starting quarterback Joe Southwick broke an ankle on the Broncos’ first play last week against the Pack. He was replaced by Grant Hedrick, who rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 150 yards in a 34-17 win over the Pack.
“We need to work on tackling,” Polian said. “That is not an earth-shattering secret. You know, you can talk about playing with emotion this week all you want. But you also have to play smart football.”
Wolf Pack defensive tackle Jack Reynoso, who joined the Wolf Pack in 2009, said “this is the best Rebels team I’ve played.”
Hauck, now in his fourth season as Rebels head coach, agrees.
“It’s our best team, for sure,” Hauck said. “We have a good, solid football team.”
Rebels’ quarterback Caleb Herring will be hoping for a little revenge on Saturday. The 6-3, 200-pound Herring endured the worst game of his career two years ago at Mackay Stadium, completing just 1-of-14 passes for eight yards and getting sacked five times in a 37-0 loss to the Pack.
“He is a much better quarterback now,” Polian said.
Herring has passed for 1,259 yards and 10 touchdowns with just one interception this year.
“He was definitely not as good (in 2011) as he is now,” said Reynoso, who had two of the Pack’s five sacks on Herring two years ago.
Reynoso said he expects the Rebels to come to Mackay determined to end their long losing streak in the rivalry.
“I can imagine they will be fired up,” Reynoso said. “But we’ll be fired up, too.”
Polian is hoping to become just the fourth Wolf Pack head coach after Scattini (1969), Horton (1993) and Tisdel (1996) to win his first game against UNLV. Ault, oddly enough, lost his first game against UNLV in all three of his different eras as Pack coach (in 1976, 1994 and 2004). Ault, though, did leave the Wolf Pack having won his last eight cannon battles.
“We (the current coaching staff) didn’t carry the burden of all those losses to Boise State and we can’t take credit for the eight straight wins against UNLV because we weren’t here,” Polian said. “But that being said, I do feel the pressure. The cannon’s been here for eight years. That’s pressure. But that’s OK. That’s what makes it fun.”