Football: Wolf Pack travels to rival UNLV Saturday
The Battle for the Fremont Cannon, at first glance, doesn’t look like much of a fight.
The Nevada Wolf Pack is 4-0, ranked in the Top 25 nationally for the first time since 1948, has been to five bowl games in the last five years and doesn’t have a single player on its current roster that has ever lost to the UNLV Rebels.
The UNLV Rebels are 1-3, have lost 55 of their last 74 games, have enjoyed just four winning seasons in their last 25 and haven’t been to a bowl game in a decade.
One might think that the Wolf Pack’s biggest enemy Saturday night (7:05 p.m.) at Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium would be a severe case of overconfidence.
“I’m a senior,” Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “This is my last chance to play those guys. I don’t want to lose my last game against them and never have another chance to get that bitter taste out of my mouth.”
Kaepernick and every other member of the Wolf Pack roster has never seen the Fremont Cannon painted red. The Wolf Pack has beaten the Rebels five consecutive times, including a 63-28 thrashing last year at Mackay Stadium. And they plan on taking the heaviest (over 500 pounds) and most expensive ($10,000 to build in 1970) trophy in college football back home with them Saturday night.
“You never overlook your rivalry game,” said Kaepernick, who is hoping to become just the second Pack quarterback (Fred Gatlin was the first in 1989-91) to go 3-0 in his career against UNLV as a starter. “The Fremont Cannon is on the line. This is a game we look forward to every year. We want to keep the cannon blue.”
So don’t worry about the Wolf Pack overlooking the Rebels.
“Overlook them?” said Pack linebacker James-Michael Johnson. “No, you don’t overlook anybody, especially your rival.”
The Wolf Pack, which owns a 20-15 edge in its all-time series against UNLV, will be after a record sixth consecutive victory in this rivalry.
“Our players know what this game means,” said Pack coach Chris Ault, who is 12-7 as a head coach against UNLV. “This is for the state championship of Nevada. That’s important. I don’t have to motivate them for this game. This game is about self-motivation.”
UNLV broke a three-game losing streak last week by beating New Mexico 45-10.
Rebel quarterback Omar Clayton hooked up with wide receiver Michael Johnson for three touchdown passes and the Rebels forced New Mexico into three turnovers.
“There’s a bounce in everyone’s stride this week,” said first-year Rebel coach Bobby Hauck. “It’s fun to see them excited. It’s thrilling to get a win because winning is hard to do.”
The Rebels know that as much as anyone. Hauck, the former head coach at Division I-AA Montana, took over a program this year that had won more than six games in a year just once since 1994.
“Our young guys are learning and getting better every game,” Hauck said. “We’re playing 15 true freshmen which might be the most in the country.”
Clayton, a senior, has passed for 534 yards and four touchdowns this year and has not been intercepted. Johnson, a junior has caught 20 passes for 279 yards and Phillip Payne has caught 15 passes for 219 yards. Channing Trotter, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior, leads UNLV with 134 rushing yards.
Clayton did not play against the Pack a year ago because of an injury. He did, however, pass for 327 yards and three touchdowns in a 49-27 Wolf Pack victory in Las Vegas in 2008. Payne also caught a TD pass in that game.
“He’s very mobile and if you don’t keep your rush lanes, he’s going to hurt you running the ball,” said Ault of Clayton. “We have to keep him contained.”
Johnson and Payne also pose a challenge for the Pack.
“They have a big guy (Payne is 6-3, 205 pounds) and a small guy (Johnson is 5-8, 175) so they are pretty diversified offensively,” said Pack secondary coach Mike Bradeson, who returned to the Pack this year after 15 years as a Rebel assistant.
“They will test us.”
Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack offense will also test the Rebels. The Pack has rushed for 1,003 yards combined in its last two victories over UNLV.
Kaepernick, especially, has shredded the Rebel defense, rushing for 413 yards and passing for 384 combined in two games against UNLV. The 6-6 senior was on the bench as a freshman in 2007, watching starter Nick Graziano beat the Rebels (27-20) with a 43-yard TD pass with 27 seconds to play at Mackay Stadium.
“We think he’s awfully good,” Hauck said of Kaepernick.
The Pack has outscored UNLV, 112-55, the last two years combined. Both games, though, had their tense moments for the Pack. UNLV jumped out to a 17-7 lead two years ago in Las Vegas and last year’s game in Reno was tied 28-28 in the third quarter.
Ault said Saturday’s game is all about the seniors.
“This senior class has never lost to UNLV,” Ault said. “Our senior class last year never lost to UNLV. We have to make this happen. Now is the time to stand up and be counted.”