UNLV football coach Marcus Arroyo might be new to the Wolf Pack-Rebels rivalry, but he's not new to facing Nevada.
When Arroyo was a quarterback at San Jose State, he played against the Wolf Pack two times, in 2000 and 2001. In both games, he led the Spartans to victory. In 2001, Arroyo had the best outing of his playing career, completing 21-of-26 passes for 476 yards and five touchdowns. He also had the only reception of his career in that 64-45 win in which the teams set a single-game FBS record for total offense, combining for 1,640 yards (the record has since been broken by Oklahoma and Texas Tech in 2016 with 1,708 yards).
Arroyo also grew up in Colfax, Calif., which is just 80 miles west of Reno, so he's more than familiar with the Wolf Pack football program that was run for many years by Chris Ault.
"I know a lot about Coach Ault," Arroyo said. "I know that he started here (at UNLV), too, so let's not all forget that. Outside of that, I think (the rivalry's) one of those things that is near and dear to people here in Las Vegas and Reno. It's one of those things that our guys will be excited about. It gives the tradition and pageantry of college football. I don't know how often nowadays guys pit themselves against the guys across the streets and go outside and play in the park, and those things are human and fun. Having a rivalry game is important to this group. There's a shared trophy in the middle of it. That's important. That make it even more worthwhile. It will be fun. I've heard a lot about it. I don't pretend to have been in it, but I'm going to defend my side."
Arroyo referred to the Wolf Pack as "Reno" rather than "Nevada," which is typical for UNLV coaches. And while he acknowledged the importance of the rivalry, he said you can't overemphasize one game on a schedule, even if it a rivalry tilt.
"Here's the reality of it," Arroyo said. "It's a really important game because the community and city and program, regardless of where you are in the county, there's a lot of pride in that game. But there's an inherent danger in hanging everything on it. That's where I think you have to be careful of. I would probably make that mistake as a younger coach. As an older coach, you have to make sure you don't want to downplay game, but you don't want to hang the season on it, either. One victory in one season over your rival shouldn't make it feel like that's a successful season. Should you feel like that's something prideful that you pitted yourself against someone you feel is a rival and people have a lot of pride in taking that? For sure."
Arroyo replaces Tony Sanchez, who had success against Nevada but not much outside of that contest. Sanchez went 3-2 against the Wolf Pack, including wins in his final two seasons against the in-state rival. His three victories over Nevada are the second most in Rebels history behind John Robinson's five. But Sanchez was 17-38 outside of games against Nevada and was fired after five seasons last November. Arroyo comes from Oregon, where he took part in the Civil War game against Oregon State. And while he spoke about the Nevada-UNLV rivalry with respect, he did not build it up as the end-all, be-all for his program.
"It's an important game because it's our next game," Arroyo said. "It's an important game because yes it is a rivalry game and there is some pride to be taken within the state, and that's good. That makes it fun. That's what makes college football college football, but you have to make sure you don't make it feel like it's all or nothing. That's what you can't do. You can't do that in any game. You can't go win any game and celebrate through the roof. The highs and the lows you have to take together and be somewhere in the middle."
The Fremont Cannon began this week in the middle of UNLV's weight room, painted a bright red. Arroyo said his staff will "make sure the game's important" to the UNLV players. The matchup will be special for another reason. Not only is this the first college game to be played at Allegiant Stadium, it will be the first played in the stadium with fans. UNLV will allow 2,000 fans into the 65,000-capacity stadium. That's below the governor's 10 percent directive (6,500 fans), but it's better than no fans, Arroyo said.
"Sure I'd love to have that thing sold out, but I definitely had nothing to do with the say of the state and local decisions that were made," Arroyo said. "I know they were made with the health and safety of our student-athletes in mind, first, our families and everything else. We all wish that thing was packed out and red this weekend. But I also will take what I can take. I'm an optimist. If it 1,000, it's better than zero."
While this is Arroyo's debut in the Fremont Cannon game, it is the fourth matchup for Nevada's Jay Norvell, who is 1-2 against UNLV and has $25,000 riding on a victory. Arroyo was complimentary of Nevada's season-opening 37-34 overtime win over Wyoming.
"They've had a chance to be coached by Coach Norvell for a while," Arroyo said. "I can tell that they've heard his voice for a while. They play hard. They run a sound defense. They did a real nice job versus Wyoming, which is another very good football club. They're going to come in here ready to roll. I have no doubt about that. They're going to play hard. They're coached well. We have to go out and handle our business this week to make sure we give ourselves a chance this Saturday."
UNLV is coming off a 34-6 loss to San Diego State in which the Rebels were held to 186 yards of total offense, including just 2.3 yards per rush and 3.7 yards per passing attempt. The Rebels used three quarterbacks, with Max Gilliam starting the game and leading UNLV to its only scoring drive, a 4-yard scoring pass in the third quarterback. Gilliam, a former Cal quarterback, completed 13-of-21 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown against San Diego State and seems likely to start against Nevada, although no official starter has been named.
"Max started and did a nice job throughout the course," Arroyo said. "He went back in and moved the football in the second half. I was excited to see that. I think coming off the bench for the other guys isn't easy, but there are asterisks to that as well. The thing I told that group is I've been in those shoes, I've been in those cleats, so I get it.
"They all did some things they can build on. We're going to force the competition. We're not going to be casual in our approach at any position. The expectations are high. They standards are set. We're not willing to bend those or break those and over the long haul that will be able to get us where we really want to get with this program."
You can watch Arroyo's full press conference below.