Rebels know importance of rivalry game against Wolf Pack

Photo Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

Every week is a big week for UNLV football as they strive for their first win under Marcus Arroyo. But this week there is a greater emphasis – it’s rivalry week. 

The Rebels will travel up north to face their in-state rival, the Nevada Wolf Pack, this Friday in the Battle for the Fremont Cannon. 

Last year, Nevada spoiled UNLV’s home opener at Allegiant Stadium with a 37-19 beatdown of the Rebels to take the Fremont Cannon back to Reno after the Rebels had won it in dramatic fashion in 2018 and 2019. 

COVID-19 greatly impacted the entire 2020 college football season and with a limited capacity at Allegiant Stadium, no one really got a true sense of a rivalry that has intensified in recent years.

“Last year, everyone was just worried about COVID, if we were going to play, constantly getting tested, so you didn’t really get a true feel of the rivalry week,” UNLV defensive back Aaron Lewis said. 

“This week, you really feel that (sense of a rivalry). A lot of people really care about this rivalry game and our team does too, so it’s really big.”

The Mountain West put together an abbreviated 2020 schedule last year after originally announcing they would not play football in the fall. One of the highlights of last year’s schedule was UNLV opening at Allegiant Stadium, hosting the Wolf Pack on Nevada Day weekend. 

And for the second straight year, this game will be played on Nevada Day week, on the Friday that the state observes the holiday, as opposed to the last game of the season. There were bigger challenges last year, like making sure COVID did not spread within a team, which overshadowed the entire football season and caused these rivalry games to lose some shine. 

“Because last year, you didn’t get a true sense of the season, of being in that week, in that moment, in that rivalry because you are trying to get a mask or 40 guys to practice,” head coach Marcus Arroyo said. 

The Rebels had two of their games canceled due to COVID protocols. Instead of teaching players, the importance of the rivalry, Arroyo and his staff were more concerned about getting his team socially distanced on the practice field or teaching everyone the game plan for the week over Zoom. 

Nevada is 5-2 and coming off a 34-32 loss at Fresno State. But the Wolf Pack have Carson Strong, one of the best quarterbacks in the country who is fifth in passing yards (2,466) and tied for eighth in touchdowns (20). Lewis said the Rebels need to lock in on the defensive scheme and stick to the plan against a very accurate quarterback. 

“Ball placement is the biggest thing I take away from (Strong’s) game,” Lewis said. “He knows where to place the ball and he is very accurate.” 

Senior running back Charles Williams is 74 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher. As important as that might be to Williams, what’s more important is bringing the cannon back to UNLV, because Williams has experienced the highs and lows of this rivalry. 

“Being a freshman and watching that cannon get pulled out and spray painted on our field at Sam Boyd, you just saw how serious it was,” Williams said. “You don’t want to see that and you don’t want to have that feeling.” 

With the close games between the Rebels and Wolf Pack in the past decade, it has injected a lot of energy into the rivalry. Nevada has a slight edge in the last 10 meetings, winning six while UNLV has four, and six of those 10 games were decided by less than a touchdown. 

Despite being nearly three-touchdown underdogs, the Rebels have proven in the past anything can happen against the Wolf Pack. In 2015, the first year under Tony Sanchez, UNLV upset Nevada 23-17 in Reno. Arroyo knows these types of games are what make college football special. Everyone is focused on getting back the cannon, which he called “the best trophy in college football.” 

“These games are big, they’re big to people,” Arroyo said. “There’s a lot of members in it and a lot of people who care a lot about it. That’s what we love about college football… It’s a really cool deal and it’s special. These guys know, it’s up everywhere. That trophy getting back here is a big deal.”

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