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The 13 most memorable games in Nevada and UNLV's bitter rivalry

Elijah Cooks
Elijah Cooks goes up for a catch during Nevada's game against UNLV in 2019, which the Rebels won in overtime. (AP file)

The Nevada-UNLV rivalry isn't the oldest in Wolf Pack football history (not even close), but it's certainly the most heated. The teams first played in 1969 (that game was mired in controversy) and controversy has been a mainstay in the Battle for the Fremont Cannon ever since, with a couple of on-field brawls breaking out over the years. With Nevada and UNLV resuming their rivalry Friday when the Wolf Pack hosts the Rebels at Mackay Stadium, here is a look at the 12 most memorable moments in the series' history.

13. 1970 (The Cannon is born): The series began in 1969, but the Fremont Cannon wasn't given out until a year later. UNLV beat Nevada in that game, 42-30, in its season finale, which also was the Rebels' homecoming game. That means the first coat of paint on the Fremont Cannon was the color red. Sorry, Pack fans.

12. 1976 (Can't stop Carano): Ault's first Nevada-UNLV game as the Wolf Pack head coach didn't go very well. UNLV's Glenn Carano, who starred at Wooster High in Reno before Ault recruited him to Vegas while a Rebel assistant, put on a show, passing for four touchdowns and rushing for two more in one of the greatest individual games in the rivalry series as UNLV won 49-33.

11. 1993 (Vargas goes wild): In one of the greatest individual performances in the Nevada-UNLV rivalry, Chris Vargas led a 49-14 rout of the Rebels in 1993. A senior, Vargas completed 30-of-39 passes for 538 yards and seven touchdowns, setting a school record for touchdown passes in a game. The only comparable game for a quarterback in this rivalry came in 1995 when Mike Maxwell threw for 552 yards and seven touchdowns, tying Vargas' single-game record.

10. 2009 (Ball has a ball): Las Vegas native Mike Ball, a running back for Nevada, rushed for 184 yards and five touchdowns on 15 carries to power Nevada to a 63-28 victory in 2009 in a game that very well might have cost UNLV coach Mike Sanford his job (Sanford was 0-5 against the Wolf Pack). Nevada turned the ball over four times, but still posted a single-game rivalry game record 63 points. The Wolf Pack rushed for 559 yards and seven scores.

9. 2012 (Combs the comeback king): An unlikely figure (backup quarterback, Devin Combs) captained Nevada's largest comeback against UNLV. Combs, playing for an injured Cody Fajardo, dug Nevada out of a 21-0 hole at Sam Boyd Stadium in 2012, accounting for 278 yards and three scores as Nevada went on a 35-3 run midway through the game. Another backup (linebacker Dray Bell) snared an interception that led to Nevada's go-ahead score in the 42-37 victory. This win secured the eighth straight over UNLV for Nevada, the longest streak of wins in series history.

8. 2018 (UNLV's epic comeback): Nevada entered the 2018 game as a 14-point favorite and showed why in the early going, building a 23-0 lead in the first 16 minutes. But it was all UNLV thereafter as the Rebels stormed back behind quarterback Armani Rogers (218 yards, five touchdowns accounted for) to pull off the largest comeback in the rivalry's history, which was capped when Javin White intercepted Ty Gangi with 1 minute, 19 seconds remaining and Nevada in UNLV territory. That pick sealed the Rebels' 34-29 win.

7. 2003 (Beer bottle hits Robinson): In one of the ugliest moments in the rivalry's history, UNLV coach John Robinson was hit near the head with a half-full plastic beer bottle during halftime of the 2003 game. Not only is throwing a beer bottle at somebody stupid, it's illegal. UNLV won the game, 16-12, which was one of Robinson's five wins over Nevada during his six seasons as the team's head coach (no other UNLV coach has more than three wins over the Wolf Pack).

6. 2007 (Sammons saves the day): Nevada and UNLV haven't had too many games come down to the last possession, but that's what happened in 2007. Wolf Pack quarterback Nick Graziano hit Kyle Sammons with a 43-yard game-winning touchdown with 27 seconds remaining to cap a 27-20 Wolf Pack victory. It was Graziano's third touchdown pass of the game and still serves as the latest game-winning, go-ahead score in the history of the rivalry (if you discount the 2019 overtime game).

5. 1978 (Cannon on the plane): After four straight rivalry game losses, Nevada beat UNLV, 23-14, as a 20-point underdog in 1978, and Ault talked security officials into allowing the team to carry the cannon onto the plane after the equipment truck left the stadium without the cannon aboard. Frank Hawkins, a Vegas native, carried the barrel onto the plane and sat with it on the flight home. No word on whether the 545-pound cannon would fit in the plastic bags required to carry things on a plane these days. This game also marked Ault's first win over UNLV after he lost his first two battles with them (he was 16-6 in his career against the Rebels).

4. 1994 (The Red Defection Game): After one season as Nevada's head coach, Jeff Horton, Ault's hand-picked successor, opted to head south and coach the hated Rebels. The following season, in 1994, Horton led UNLV to a 32-27 win over the Wolf Pack and his former mentor (Ault) in the Red Defection Game. That would be the only time Horton beat Nevada, losing the next four rivalry games (each by at least 11 points) before being fired with a 13-44 record. The 1994 loss by Nevada was one of only two defeats for the Wolf Pack that season, the other coming to Boise State. Despite going 9-2, Nevada was denied a bowl game before of that regular-season finale loss to the Rebels.

3. 2019 (Overtime and a brawl): Nevada entered this game as a 6.5-point favorite but fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter and still trailed by two touchdowns late in the game before scoring twice in the final seven minutes to force the first Nevada-UNLV overtime game. After Brandon Talton nailed a 42-yard field goal, UNLV got its overtime possession and Kenyon Oblad hit Steve Jenkins on a 19-yard touchdown pass to secure a 33-30 Rebels win in Tony Sanchez's last game as the team's coach. Seconds after the game-winning play, Nevada safety Austin Arnold blindsided Oblad with punch from behind that sparked a brawl that pushed up against the fans in the south end zone. Eight players drew suspensions.

2. 1969 (The kick that was good — or was it?): The first game played between these rivals remains the one that ended with the narrowest margin of victory, a 30-28 Nevada win. Wolf Pack quarterback/kicker John Barnes, who accounted for two touchdowns, nailed a game-winning 33-yard field goal with about a minute remaining. It was so dark near the end of the game, which was played at Mackay Stadium before lights were installed, UNLV claimed the kick was no good, although most agree it did go through the uprights. The refs said it was good, and that's really all that matters.

1. 1995 (Sanders throws his helmet): The most memorable matchup between these two isn't remembered so much for what happened during the game (Nevada won, 55-32, with Ault calling three late timeouts to squeeze in one more touchdown). Instead, it's remembered for what happened after the game (Reed High graduate Quincy Sanders threw his helmet at Ault, although he did hit him). There was nearly a pre-game brawl, which was tamed, but things boiled over after Nevada ran up the score late. As Nevada went to get the Fremont Cannon, a ruckus broke out and Sanders flung his helmet into Fremont Cannon infamy.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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