For a rivalry that seemingly has everything, the latest chapter of the Battle for the Fremont Cannon added some new wrinkles Saturday at Mackay Stadium, including a pre-game proposal by a player, the first overtime matchup between the Silver State schools and a post-game fight that nearly spilled into the stands.
In the end, the Fremont Cannon won’t be getting a new shade. It will remain UNLV Rebel red as coach Tony Sanchez, who was fired Monday, got a swan song worth remembering, a 33-30 overtime win over Nevada before 16,683 fans, the lowest figure for this game since 1989.
The game started with a joyous moment as punter Quinton Conaway, following the senior day festivities, proposed to his girlfriend at midfield. (She said, “Yes.”) The game ended with an ugly brawl as Nevada and UNLV players starting throwing punches seconds after the Rebels’ game-winning touchdown. One UNLV player had his helmet briefly taken by Nevada fans in the south end zone. Another Rebels player (Giovanni Fauolo Jr.) used his helmet to swing at fans taunting him as Wolf Pack supporters tossed snowballs on the field.
“I don’t even really know what happened to be honest with you,” Nevada coach Jay Norvell said of the post-game fireworks. “I can’t speak about it. It’s an emotional game, a lot of these kids know each other. Either way, winning a game or losing a game, there’s never an excuse to act the wrong way. I’m not quite sure what happened. We’ll get to the bottom of it. It’s a football game, it’s competitive, it’s emotional and it’s a hard game for a lot of these kids. A lot of these kids will never get a chance to play in this game again. A lot of these kids never get a chance to play in Mackay again.”
After a couple of minutes, the players were eventually shuttled off the field with the help of about a half-dozen police officers. The incident appeared to be sparked when Nevada’s Austin Arnold rushed and pushed UNLV quarterback Kenyon Oblad to the ground from behind, which led to a host of UNLV players tackling Arnold. Nevada’s Hausia Sekona was rammed into a snowbank in the south end zone as the teams came together before a UNLV player was pinned against the south end zone, where he helmet was taken into the crowd.
“I don’t really know what happened," Norvell reiterated. "I’m very proud of how our kids act and respond. Everybody is an adult, everybody is responsibility for their own actions. I’m not sure what happened. I just know their whole team ran over to us after the game. I know that. I was standing there when they did it. I’m not making excuses for anybody’s actions. I don’t know what happened, so I can’t comment on it.”
The post-game fighting marred what was an instant classic on the field. The Wolf Pack fell behind 17-0 after the first quarter before clawing back into the game. UNLV took a 24-13 lead at intermission thanks to two long scoring plays, an 80-yard run by Charles Williams, who was untouched going up the middle of Nevada’s defense, and a 75-yard catch by Steve Jenkins, who beat Daniel Brown in man coverage.
Things still looked meager for Nevada midway through the fourth quarter before a late rally as Carson Strong, who completed 33-of-54 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown, led Nevada back into the game. His 24-yard pass to Dominic Christian pulled the Wolf Pack within 27-20 with 6:47 remaining. He led the game-tying drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Devonte Lee with 1:32 left.
“Carson is a competitor,” Norvell said. “I was really proud of how he responded and competed all the way to the end. I thought that was a real positive. He protected the football, didn’t turn the ball over and that’s usually a recipe for victory. At the same time, we didn’t do enough.”
UNLV and Nevada both had one last chance to win the game in regulation but neither was able to move the ball into field-goal range, forcing the first overtime in this 45-game series. The Rebels won the coin toss and elected to play defense first. Nevada was unable to move the ball and settled for a Brandon Talton 42-yard field goal to go up three before UNLV got its first possession of overtime.
On third-and-4 from the Nevada 19-yard line, Oblad hit a wide-open Jenkins for the game-winning 19-yard touchdown pass, sending UNLV’s sideline into a frenzy and Nevada’s into despair.
“It looked like we got picked,” Norvell said. “We definitely busted the coverage, though. We were in man, and I think it was a switch route and somehow we got caught up in it. It was a big play by them.”
UNLV’s players stormed the field in celebration before the fighting began, which will draw the eye of the Mountain West with disciplinary action likely to follow. The fracas was reminiscent of the 1995 game that saw two brawls in Jeff Horton’s first game back in Reno after he left Nevada to be UNLV’s head coach. The 2003 game was marred when a fan hit UNLV's John Robinson with a plastic beer bottle. Fisticuffs is not new in this rivalry.
“It just took the air out of everyone once they scored that touchdown,” Strong said. “Just the natural instinct is to retaliate a little when they start talking. There’s going to be talking and shoving. It’s a rivalry game. But we should be able to keep composure.”
Norvell said he was pleased with most of the stats on the final score sheet, his one big issue being Nevada’s inability to run the ball. The Wolf Pak had 108 rushing yards on 37 carries, only 2.9 yards per rush against a defense that had been sieve-like trying to stop the run. Nevada had a massive edge in first downs (28-15) and time of possession (34:47 to 25:13) and out-gained UNLV (459-412) in the turnover-free game. But the Rebels had those two first-half explosive plays that staked UNLV to a big lead.
“We didn’t make a big play on defense, we didn’t make a big play on offense,” Norvell said. “We made a lot of good plays, but we didn’t make any big plays. At the end of the day, they made big plays and that was the difference.”
The loss snapped Nevada’s three-game win streak and marked the fifth straight game in this series in which the betting-line underdog won.
In last year’s game, Nevada led 23-0 before a second-half collapse as UNLV pulled off the largest comeback in series history. The Wolf Pack was unable to repay the favor after trailing by 17 and falling short in overtime. Norvell dropped to 1-2 against UNLV while Sanchez moved to 3-2 against Nevada in his final game of the series. Among UNLV coaches, only Robinson has more wins (five) against Nevada than Sanchez.
“They all hurt,” Norvell said of whether this loss stung more. “We’re not happy. We don’t like losing this game or any game, but it hurts. But we’ll come back. I talked to the kids and that’s the reason you play the game. The reason you play the game is nobody knows what could happen. Something good could happen. Something bad could happen.”
Strong, who was without two of his three starting receivers due to injury and leaned heavily on Elijah Cooks, who caught 12 passes for 151 yards, was more blunt.
“It's just really disappointing,” Strong said. “Heartbreaking. We know this community really cares about this game and all my teammates and coaches all care about this game and to not be able to come out with the win really hurts.”
The season should continue for Nevada (7-5, 4-4 MW), which is bowl eligible. UNLV improved to 4-8 overall and in 2-6 MW, winning its final two games of the season. The Wolf Pack should know in two Sundays who and where it will be playing in a bowl game. But the cannon will remain red, and for many Wolf Pack fans, that’s more important than whatever Nevada does in the postseason.
“It’s a crappy way to go out,” Nevada running back Toa Taua said.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.
Editor's note: Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth and UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois have released the following joint statement:
“The events that occurred following today’s football game have no place in college athletics and we are deeply disappointed by this incident, which detracts from what was a hard-fought and emotional football game between our state’s only two NCAA programs.
“We are examining all available video from the incident and working with the Mountain West office in a full review. Additionally, we are working with the University of Nevada, Reno Police Department to review the actions on the field and in the stands after the game.
“Rivalry games are at the heart of what should be great about intercollegiate athletics. We will continue to prioritize sportsmanship at all of our events, especially those between our two great institutions.”