The UNLV Rebels will face an invigorated, bold, focused and self-assured Nevada Wolf Pack football team this Saturday.
“We have the confidence that we can finish and win games properly,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “We’ve won some close games and to win close games you have to do the right things. And we’ve done that.”
“We’ve just gotten better and better each game,” Wolf Pack freshman quarterback Carson Strong said.
“We’ve come a long way,” senior running back Kelton Moore said.
The Wolf Pack, now 7-4 overall and 4-3 in the Mountain West, will take a confidence-building three-game winning streak into the 45th edition of the Battle for the Fremont Cannon against UNLV on Saturday (noon) at Mackay Stadium.
UNLV is just 3-8, 1-6 this season and announced on Monday that head coach Tony Sanchez (19-40 record since 2016) will not be back for the 2020 season. The Pack heads into this regular-season finale with a chance to tie Hawaii and San Diego State for first place (at 5-3) in the West Division. Hawaii, though, has already earned the right to represent the division in the conference title game at Boise State on Dec. 7 because it beat both Nevada and San Diego State this year.
“We were hoping to play for an appearance in the championship game,” Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “That was our goal. But we can still tie for the division. That would be an accomplishment.”
The Wolf Pack has not either won a division outright or tied for the lead since it tied for the Western Athletic Conference title in 2010 at 7-1. There are, however, bigger accomplishments on the table against UNLV.
A victory on Saturday and in a bowl game next month will give the Pack its first nine-win season since the 2010 team went 13-1. But the biggest goal this weekend for Nevada will be to win back the cherished Fremont Cannon. Wolf Pack fans will see the cannon painted red at Mackay Stadium this Saturday for the first time since 2005 thanks to UNLV’s 34-29 comeback victory (the Pack led 23-0) in the rivalry last season.
“We can get the cannon back,” said Novell, who has a record of 1-1 against UNLV. “That’s something we’ve been thinking about for 12 months.”
The Wolf Pack-Rebel rivalry currently has equaled its longest stretch of parity since it began in 1969, splitting the last six games. The only other time the Pack and Rebels have split six consecutive games was the first six games in the series from 1969-74. The rest of the rivalry has been dominated by one team or the other. UNLV won seven of nine from 1974-87, the Pack won 10-of-11 from 1989-99, UNLV won five in a row from 2000-04 and the Pack won eight in a row from 2005-12. The Pack now leads the rivalry 28-16.
“This is always a very physical game with a lot of emotions going into it,” Wolf Pack senior linebacker Gabriel Sewell said. “You just have to control your emotions and don’t let them get the best of you.”
There will be a lot of emotions on both sidelines on Saturday. The Rebels, after all, will be playing their last game for Sanchez.
“We do not need to get emotional,” the 45-year-old former Bishop Gorman High coach said. “We do not need to have feelings get in the way.”
Sanchez will become the sixth head coach to coach his last game at either Nevada or UNLV with the Fremont Cannon at stake. Three other coaches were Rebels (Bobby Hauck in 2014, Ron Meyer in 1975 and Bill Ireland in 1972) and two were the Wolf Pack’s Brian Polian (2016) and Jerry Scattini (1975). Only Polian and Meyer were able to wheel the cannon off the field in victory after their last game as a head coach in the rivalry.
“I’m disappointed that I’m not going to get a chance to continue on,” said Sanchez, who won the Rebels’ last game at Sam Boyd Stadium last week (38-35 over San Jose State) before the school moves to the new Allegiant Stadium next season.
Sanchez, who is 2-2 against the Wolf Pack (he beat Polian in 2015 and Norvell last year), is the Rebels’ 11th head coach. The last eight UNLV head coaches starting in 1982 (Harvey Hyde, Wayne Nunnely, Jim Strong, Jeff Horton, John Robinson, Mike Sanford, Hauck, Sanchez) have combined for a record of 135-307-1 after the first three (Ireland, Meyer, Tony Knap) combined for a record of 100-51-2 from 1968-81.
Norvell, by comparison, can lift his Wolf Pack coaching record over .500 (he is currently 18-18) with a win on Saturday for the first time since he got the job before the 2017 season. Norvell lost his first five games at Nevada and eight of his first nine but has won 17-of-27 since.
“We’re not done yet,” Norvell said. “We signed on for a 12-game season and a bowl game. We have to finish the deal.”
Strong, who has a record of 5-3 as the Wolf Pack’s starting quarterback, wants to start a winning streak against UNLV.
“My personal goal is to never lose against UNLV,” the freshman said. “I want to win four games against them and lose none. Enough said.”
Strong, a redshirt freshman, is hoping to become the first Pack quarterback in history to start and win four games against UNLV. A couple have come close. Colin Kaepernick (2008-10) and Fred Gatlin (1989-91) started three and won all three, though both were part of four wins against UNLV as part of the active Wolf Pack roster. Kaepernick did not play behind starter Nick Graziano as a redshirt freshman in the Pack’s 2007 victory over UNLV and Gatlin, a senior, came on in relief of starter Chris Vargas in the Pack’s 1992 win over UNLV.
“I know I feel I’ve gotten better each time I go out there and I feel our whole team has taken that mentality,” Strong said.
Strong, who has passed for 1,582 yards and nine touchdowns this year, will go up against another redshirt freshman on Saturday. UNLV’s Kenyon Oblad, who graduated from Liberty High in Henderson, has passed for 1,852 yards and 15 touchdowns this year since taking over for junior Armani Rogers. It was Rogers who engineered UNLV’s win over the Pack last year, passing for three touchdowns and running for two.
“Carson has shown growth and maturity,” Norvell said.
The last time the Wolf Pack finished a regular season with a winning streak of four games or more was 2010 when it won its last six regular season games and extended the streak to seven with a win in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl over Boston College.
“A lot of people just kind of wrote us off after we lost to Wyoming (a 31-3 loss on Oct. 26 that left the Pack at 4-4, 1-3),” Strong said. “But we knew we had it in us to go out and win the rest of our games.
“I know we had a couple of rough patches and a couple of bad losses. We just want to say thank you to the fans who stuck with us.”
Norvell is fully aware that a win on Saturday is the best way to say thank you to Wolf Pack fans, who recently witnessed UNLV rolling the cannon off the field after the 2013 and 2015 games at Mackay Stadium.
“This is a great rivalry game,” Norvell said. “This is really special. It’s an honor to play in this game. We have an opportunity to do some special things and end the season with an exclamation point.”