A ‘must win’ for Norvell, Pack | RecordCourier.com

A ‘must win’ for Norvell, Pack

by Joe Santoro
Special to The R-C

Joe Santoro

Jay Norvell is now facing the single most important football game of his debut season as the Nevada Wolf Pack's head coach.

The first 11 games this season — nine of which ended in a Wolf Pack loss — now do not matter. Northern Nevada can forgive those nine losses as mere first-year jitters by a well-meaning rookie head coach. Northern Nevada, though, will not forgive a loss to the UNLV Rebels at Mackay Stadium on Saturday.

There's just something about seeing the Fremont Cannon painted red that angers Wolf Pack fans. The only thing Pack fans hate more than seeing a red cannon is seeing a blue cannon wheeled off the Mackay Stadium turf by UNLV players. Norvell simply cannot allow that to happen Saturday.

"That is our bowl game," Norvell said a week ago, referring to the UNLV game.

Not quite. Nobody cares about the meaningless bowl games the Pack can get to out of the Mountain West. The Battle for the Fremont Cannon, on the other hand, is football life or death in Northern Nevada.

If Norvell loses to UNLV and his coaching clock in the hearts and minds of Wolf Pack fans will begin to tick.

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Tick, tock, tick, tock. Another coat of garish red paint on the cannon here, another one there. And before you know it the Pack is announcing yet another decision to mutually part ways with another head coach.

Here's all you need to know about how good UNLV is this year. The Pack stand at 2-9. The Rebels are 5-6. The Pack have only beaten Hawaii and San Jose State, two of the worst teams in the nation. The Rebels have beaten Hawaii and San Jose State as well as three other teams, including Fresno State, which will be in the Mountain West title game next month. UNLV has scored 15 more points than the Pack this year and has allowed 33 fewer. The Rebels will finish third in the West Division and the Pack will finish fourth. UNLV has a better road record (3-2) than the Pack has a home record (2-3) this year. The Rebels have won the last two games in this rivalry at Mackay Stadium.

And the Pack still opened the week as a three-point favorite on Saturday.

Norvell knows that if he wins Saturday he can convince Northern Nevada that all is well at Mackay Stadium despite a nine-loss season. He can say with a straight face that his football team improved as the season went along. He can talk about a bright future and a team that has bought into what he is preaching. He can say he did something that only one other coach at Nevada has done since 1999 — he beat UNLV at Mackay Stadium.

The only other coach to do it this century is Chris Ault. And it is Ault who could serve as Norvell's greatest resource this week.

Ault, who understood the psyche of the average Wolf Pack fan as well as anyone ever has up on North Virginia Street, based his entire career on beating UNLV. He turned all of Northern Nevada into raging bulls, angry at the mere sight of the color Rebel red from the moment he first stepped on campus as head coach in 1976. He tapped into and fed the anti-Las Vegas hostility that flows through town like the Truckee. He made sure his players understood the importance of the UNLV game. And they always went out and played the Rebels as if their Pack careers depended on it.

That's because it did. The last thing Ault wanted was to go around the state asking boosters for money with a loss to UNLV pinned to his head. Ault made sure he beat UNLV and the boosters loved him for it. Ault, who was 15-7 in his career against UNLV, winning 13 of his last 15 games in the rivalry, knew that one win over UNLV could save an entire season and motivate an otherwise apathetic fan base to buy season tickets in the off-season.

Norvell should have Ault speak to the Pack players this week about what the rivalry against UNLV means. If they didn't understand the importance of beating UNLV before, they will after Ault talks to them.

The same is true of Norvell and his coaching staff, many of which probably didn't even know UNLV and Nevada were in the same state before they got here 11 months ago.

Ault can make sure this week that the importance of Saturday is not lost on Norvell, his staff and the players.

Northern Nevada's football fans, you see, need to beat UNLV now more than ever.

The sports rivalry between Las Vegas and Reno outside Mackay Stadium and Sam Boyd Stadium is getting a bit one-sided. Las Vegas, after all, has the NHL. It is getting the NFL. It is getting a state-of-the-art $2 billion football stadium. Las Vegas has NASCAR, big-time boxing, the NBA Summer League, a college bowl game and the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference basketball tournaments in March. It is becoming a sports mecca, a Disneyland for jocks.

Northern Nevada right now, though, has the Fremont Cannon.

Norvell needs to make sure we can say the same thing on Saturday night.