Joe Santoro: The Fremont Cannon returns and it had better stay

Nevada coach Jay Norvell watches his team on their winning drive against Fresno State during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

Nevada coach Jay Norvell watches his team on their winning drive against Fresno State during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

As the final seconds ticked off the Sam Boyd Stadium clock on Nov. 24, 2018, Jay Norvell felt he had one last lesson to teach his Nevada Wolf Pack football team.

“I made our players stay on the field and watch them take the cannon away and watch their celebration,” the Wolf Pack head coach said this week.

It was a moment the Pack players and coaches will likely never forget the rest of their lives. UNLV, the University of Notta Lotta Victories, was dancing off the field with the blue Fremont Cannon, thanks to a stunning 34-29 comeback victory over the Wolf Pack.

And Norvell wanted the scene etched on the minds of everyone wearing silver and blue.

“I can still remember it like it happened yesterday,” Wolf Pack senior running back Kelton Moore said. “I was on the bench on the sideline watching them celebrate and pull the cannon to the middle of the field. It was the worst feeling. I don’t want to feel that again.”

Moore rushed for 129 yards and a 46-yard touchdown in the game. It wasn’t enough.

“Coach made us watch,” senior linebacker Gabriel Sewell said. “I’ll never forget that feeling.”

The cannon — the red Fremont Cannon — will be at Mackay Stadium this Saturday for a High Noon kickoff when the Rebels come to town for Game No. 45 of the Silver State Shootout. The Pack is determined to roll that cannon off Chris Ault Field and back into its rightful home in Cashell Fieldhouse, where it has spent 11 of the last 14 seasons.

“It’s an empty feeling when I walk out of my office and look down the hall and it is not there,” said Norvell of his cannon-free Cashell office.

A blue cannon was sitting peacefully in Cashell when Norvell got the Pack job in December 2016, thanks to a resounding 45-10 Pack win in Las Vegas the month before in Brian Polian’s final game as head coach. The cannon stayed blue and called Cashell home for almost two more years as Norvell won his first Cannon game 23-16 at Mackay in November 2017. That victory made a three-win season acceptable. The cannon remained at Cashell until it was loaded onto a plane headed to Las Vegas last November.

It never came back.

“That’s something that motivates us,” Norvell said.

Losing to UNLV is something that starts a Wolf Pack coach’s firing squad clock ticking. The clock stops when you beat UNLV. But if you lose again, well, it ticks even faster.

But Norvell is not alone. Losing to UNLV in either your first or second game against the Rebels certainly doesn’t make Norvell unique. Jerry Scattini lost his second game against the Rebels (1970). Chris Ault lost his first two (1976, 77). Chris Tormey went 0-4 from 2000-03. Polian lost his Pack-Rebel debut in 2013 (and again in 2015).

Only two of the seven Pack coaches to face UNLV never suffered the pain of losing to the Rebels. Jeff Horton, who would later lose four games in a row to the Pack as the Rebels’ head coach, was 1-0 (1993) in the rivalry as the Pack head coach. And Jeff Tisdel, the greatest Rebel killer in Pack history, was 4-0 against UNLV from 1996-99.

“As Coach Ault said, you remember the ones you lose more than the ones you win,” Norvell said.

That’s because Pack fans will never allow you to forget. That is because this game belongs to the fans. The rest of the games belong to the players and the coaches. Rivalry games are for the fans.

When the Pack loses to UNLV — it has happened an unforgivable three times in the last six games — it is as if the players and coaches just kicked their own fans in the gut.

Last year was especially cruel.

The Pack led 23-0 in the second quarter. All that was missing was a blue party hat on the cannon.

“We went in there overconfident,” Sewell said. “We were already looking ahead to the bowl game.”

The Rebels, winners of just one of their first seven Mountain West games a year ago (like this year), had nothing to look forward to. It was 23-0. The Rebels weren’t even looking forward to the second half.

The Pack then scored all of three points in the second half. UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers suddenly turned into Lamar Jackson, throwing for three touchdowns and running for two more. Pack quarterback Ty Gangi was intercepted three times.

It was a silver and blue nightmare and Norvell made sure the Pack’s eyes were wide open when it all ended.

“It is important to know that pain,” Norvell said. “You never get over it.”

You better not, especially if the words “Battle Born” mean anything to you.

The similarities between last year and this year are, well, a bit frightening if you are a Pack follower. The Wolf Pack, just like last year, is feeling pretty good about itself, riding a season-saving three-game winning streak heading into this Saturday afternoon. Last year the Pack had won four in a row before it left for Las Vegas. The Pack is 7-4 right now. Just like last year.

A winning streak and a 7-4 record against a team that was 3-8 overall all added up to disaster a year ago as UNLV outscored the Wolf Pack 34-6 over the final 42:29 to steal the cannon.

“I just remember the seniors last year more than anything,” said Moore, whose 1-yard touchdown run with 7:34 to play beat the Rebels in 2017. “For those seniors not to get the cannon, that hit heavy.”

How heavy? Well, remember when the Mapes Hotel came crashing down in January 2000? Yeah, just like that.

Last year’s disastrous loss at UNLV ruined an 8-5 season. Ask any Wolf Pack fan. That gruesome loss in Las Vegas totally destroyed an eight-win season. Rivalry games are why we care about college football. Win them and all is right with the world. Lose one and, well, an eight-win season seems like a cruel joke.

The Pack won a bowl game last year. It beat Oregon State and San Diego State. It won at Air Force and Hawaii. But it lost the one game that means everything to Wolf Pack fans. And it lost in embarrassing fashion, frittering away a 23-0 lead against a team that treats the Fremont Cannon like it is a free buffet at Circus Circus.

Season destroyed.

“These are the games you remember, the games people remember,” Norvell said. “You may not remember the 11 other games you play this season but you will certainly remember this one.”

The same thing will happen this year if the Pack loses this Saturday afternoon. Wins on the road at San Diego State and Fresno State? Big deal. The Pack loses on Saturday and you can forget the win over Purdue. You can wipe away those three wins in a row in November leading up to the UNLV game.

Pack fans do not want another hollow 8-5 season that includes a loss to UNLV. If that cannon heads back on a plane to Las Vegas after Saturday’s game Norvell should be on the seat next to it.

Losing to the Rebels is hard enough for Pack fans, coaches and players. But imagine how the poor cannon feels. The cannon has been painted red for the past year as if it was an aging Vegas showgirl. That’s not a good look for anyone. Even worse, the cannon has had to witness yet another ugly Rebel football season up close. If the cannon had a Facebook or Instagram page, they would be filled with pictures of the cannon with a puddle of tears near its wheels. Nobody, not even a 500-pound hunk of steel that can’t even fire back in anger anymore, should be subjected to that kind of punishment. Anyone looking for a “Free Fremont’s Cannon” t-shirt for this weekend?

“When you sign on (at Nevada), you sign on for the winning tradition of Nevada football,” said Norvell, who eloquently read from his Rebel Week script this week. “And when you sign on, you sign on for this game. There’s a difference between tradition and winning tradition. We have a winning tradition here at Nevada.”

Norvell, a veteran coach, is very good at telling the Wolf Pack fan base what it wants to hear. He’s been around the college football block a few times. “We know what it means to the people of northern Nevada,” Norvell said.

He does now, ever since late last November. The community is still in shock. The coach needs to ease the community’s pain this Saturday.

“You have a responsibility to represent this school in a certain way,” Norvell said. “We have a responsibility to the community and to the people who came before us.”

All of the victories this year over New Mexico, San Jose State, Weber State and UTEP were well and good. And it’s always nice to beat the bullies from San Diego State and Fresno State.

But this game this weekend is the one the Pack and its fans have been waiting for.

“This is very important,” Norvell said. “We started the season (in August) Talking about it.”

The time for talk is over.

“This is the icing on the cake,” Sewell said. “The coaches know it, we know it, the community knows it.”

Make no mistake, this game is the cake. Those first seven wins this year are the icing, simply a pile of empty calories in search of a cake.

“The season doesn’t mean nothing if the cannon’s not blue,” Sewell said. “At the end of the day, the cannon has to be blue.”

That, more than anything else, is exactly what Pack fans want to hear.


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