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Wolf Pack Football Preview: Nevada looks to take back the Fremont Cannon versus UNLV

NCAA Football: UNLV at Nevada
Nevada Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell, right, and his team prepare to take the field against the UNLV Rebels (2019).
David Calvert-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time ever, the Battle for the Fremont Cannon will take place on Nevada Day — the 156th anniversary of Nevada officially becoming a state.

In the annual showdown between the two rivals, the Fremont Cannon is awarded to the winner and subsequently painted the winning team’s color. In the past two seasons, the Cannon has resided down south, spray painted in red after two straight UNLV victories.

The Wolf Pack seek their first 2-0 start since 2014.

The two intrastate foes will face-off in the newly-constructed Allegiant Stadium, home to the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders. The Rebels plan to play their first two games (other is vs. Fresno State on Nov. 7) at Allegiant Stadium, but must re-submit any additional plans to play at the stadium for their final two games.

Since the Raiders opted to have no fans for its first three games, Saturday’s contest marks the first time that fans will be allowed to attend the $2 billion venue. It will be held at three percent capacity, equating to 2,000 fans. Fans that attend will require screening and must wear masks while practicing social distancing rules.

Nevada is coming off a 37-34 overtime thriller versus the Wyoming Cowboys. Strong tossed for 420 yards and four touchdowns while Nevada tallied nearly 500 yards of offense. It was not a pleasant head coaching debut for first-year man Marcus Arroyo, who previously was the offensive coordinator at Oregon. San Diego State trounced UNLV 34-6 (check out Alex’s recap here!).

Matchup: Nevada (1-0) vs. UNLV (0-1)

When: Saturday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. PST

Where: Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nev.

TV: Fox Sports 1

Spread: Nevada -14

Last Meeting: UNLV won 33-30 in OT (Nov. 30, 2019)

Matchup History: Nevada leads 26-19

When UNLV is on offense:

The Rebel offense was detained to 186 total yards on 2.9 yards per play — their lowest mark since totaling 166 yards (on 2.7 yards per play) against New Mexico on Oct. 6, 2018.

UNLV used three quarterbacks in the first half: Max Gilliam, Kenyon Oblad and TCU transfer Justin Rogers.

Gilliam, who started, saw the most action — appearing in two of UNLV’s seven first-half drives and the entirety of the second half. He completed 13-of-21 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Oblad and Rogers combined for eight attempts, totaling just one yard on four completions.

Charles Williams, a reigning first-team All-Mountain West honoree, is the centerpiece of this Rebel offense. The “Chuck Wagon” was held to just 80 yards on 20 carries against SDSU. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound tailback is coming off his first 1,000-yard season — placing second in the Mountain West in rushing yards (1,257) and rushing touchdowns (11).

Steve Jenkins was the Rebels’ top receiver Saturday, totaling five receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown.

Wideouts Mekhi Stevenson, Randal Grimes and Brandon Presley will likely miss their second straight game after not appearing on the depth chart for the second consecutive week. Grimes was the team’s top returning wideout with 44 receptions for 696 yards with seven scores. Stevenson totaled 20 receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown in seven starts.

Despite a horrendous showing against SDSU, the Rebel offensive line is one of the strengths of this offense. The group is led by right guard Julio Garcia, who is arguably the second-best player offensively.

The Pack defense is led by first-team All-Mountain West defensive lineman Dom Peterson. Entering 2020, he returned as the top sack (9) and tackle-for-loss (15) leader. Sam Hammond — who registered just 3.0 tackles-for-loss in 2019 — tallied 2.5 with seven total tackles in the overtime win on Saturday.

Lawson Hall (leg) is questionable to play Saturday. Hall, Nevada’s best linebacker, totaled six tackles with one sack in the season-opener. He recorded 56 tackles with 2.5 sacks and two interceptions last season.

Nevada starting strong safety Tyson Williams will be suspended the first half after a targeting ejection in the third quarter against Wyoming. Per the NCAA rules, any player ejected in the second half is automatically suspended for the first half of the succeeding game.

Though they will be without Williams for a half, free safety Austin Arnold will be able to have a full game under his belt. Arnold underwent a one-and-a-half game suspension for his role in the Nevada-UNLV brawl. In 2019, he finished fourth on the team in tackles (51) with five pass deflections and one interception.

When Nevada is on offense:

Strong, who was dubbed the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week, leads the conference’s best passing attack through the . He boasted career-highs in completions (39), completion percentage (75.0 percent), passing yards (420), touchdowns (4) and pass efficiency rating (168.2).

Strong currently has 203 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, which leads the nation:

1. Carson Strong - 203
2. Jayden Daniels (Arizona State) - 157
2. Zach Wilson (BYU) - 157
4. Dillon Gabriel (UCF) - 133
5. Kedon Slovis (USC) - 126
6. Tyrrell Pigrome (WKU) - 113

With the uncertainty of Toa Taua’s availability, Devonte Lee could potentially see the most snaps at running back. In Taua’s absence in the opening contest, Lee rushed for 65 yards on 18 carries (3.6 ypc) and added five receptions for 16 yards.

True freshman Avery Morrow encompassed his first taste of collegiate action, totaling 27 yards from scrimmage on four touches, including an 18-yard rushing score.

The Pack’s stable of wideouts delivered a plethora of breakout performances against Wyoming.

Romeo Doubs topped double-digit receptions for the second time in his career, hauling-in a career-best 11. He totaled 117 yards and a score on a game-winning nine-yard overtime score.

In his last seven games, dating back to Nevada’s contest against San Jose State on Oct. 12, 2019, Doubs has registered 46 catches, 683 yards with five receiving touchdowns. He has two games with double-digit catches and three with 100-plus receiving yards.

Heading into Saturday, Cole Turner, had six career receptions for 88 yards. After an offseason transition to tight end, the 6-foot-6, 240-pounder had a career evening. Turner did not look like a tight end, hauling in seven receptions for a team-high 119 yards. He had a pair of scores from 50 and 10 yards away.

Turner and Doubs are also the first Pack duo with 100-plus yards in a single game since 2018. Melquan Stovall added five receptions for 64 yards.

There is uncertainty on whether star receiver Elijah Cooks (shoulder) will play in Saturday’s game. Cooks was suspended for the first half against Wyoming due to an undisclosed violation of team rules. He briefly returned in the second half, catching two passes for 24 yards.

Questions loomed entering the season at the Wolf Pack’s left tackle position due to the abrupt retirement of senior Miles Beach. Moses Landis was projected to start, but did not suit up. Freshman Jacob Gardner took over and head coach Jay Norvell was largely impressed with his performance. He was the first true freshman to start at left tackle since Nevada joined the FBS in 1992.

UNLV’s run defense delivered a porous effort — surrendering 287 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to SDSU’s lethal rushing attack. Four running backs rushed for 40-plus yards while two rushed for 80-plus.

Nobody on Rebel defense accumulated more than two sacks last year. They had 13 as a team, ranking T-125 in the nation.

Kolo Uasike (26 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss in ‘19) is the team’s top returning defensive lineman. Adam Plant Jr. — who also transferred from TCU like Rogers — tallied two tackles-for-loss and one sack in last week’s loss.

Farrell Hester, the team’s top returning tackler (70), was not listed on UNLV’s Week 1 depth chart. Hester started ten games for the Rebels last year. Vic Varamontes is listed as the starting MIKE linebacker. In his second career start with UNLV, Varamontes had five tackles with one tackle-for-loss.

UNLV placed 104th in the nation in pass defense (256.2 ypg) last season. Starting free safety Greg Francis also was not on the depth chart. He totaled 42 tackles — the second-most among returning starters — along with two pass breakups.

Bryce Jackson, the team’s starting strong safety, leads the secondary unit. He had eight tackles with one pass breakup in the Rebels’ season opener. Jackson finished last season with 23 tackles and two sacks in 2019.

The Rebels, who project to start two corners on the outside per its depth chart, will have to find a way to slow down this vaunted Wolf Pack passing attack in order to keep The Cannon red.

Did you know...?

That the Fremont Cannon is college football’s largest and most expensive trophy! The cannon, built in 1970, weighs approximately 545 pounds and cost $10,000 to build (roughly $66,000 in 2020 currency).

Prediction:

  • Nevada: 31
  • UNLV: 24

It has been hard to predict these games in recent memory. Underdogs have won in six of the last eight games, including four out of the last five. Each team has split over the last eight years. To complicate things, nothing is normal in the year 2020, so anything is on the table. But I think Nevada squeaks away in a closer-than-expected victory. Both teams want this game, but this is a really important game for this Nevada team — specifically Norvell. His job doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy after inking a five-year extension in the offseason, but losing three straight games to UNLV will not suit well with the fan base. Since the rivalry debuted in 1969, Nevada has gone just two spans (1974-77; 2000-04) with three-plus game losing skids to its intrastate foe. Losing three straight would be a gut punch to his legacy. It’s a big game for Norvell, whose team is coming off a big victory. New stadium. New atmosphere. Both teams will come out with energy. Anything’s possible, especially nowadays. I think Strong has another strong (no pun intended) outing. Nevada’s offense attack, in the end, could be too much for UNLV’s rebuilding defense. Tasked against stopping Valladay and now Williams in the first two games, the Wolf Pack defense — which will need to iron things after allowing 22 unanswered points last Saturday — will not thrusted into an easier task on Saturday. They need to contain Williams, control the football and be disciplined to win this game. In theory, Nevada should win this game handedly. But if 2020, or recent history suggests anything, this won’t come easy.

Additional Links:

UNLV Game Notes: https://bit.ly/2JnTm7j

Nevada Game Notes: https://bit.ly/2J9NbTZ

Is Nevada-UNLV a rivalry? Check Alex and I’s thoughts here: https://bit.ly/2GbbQ9E

Nevada Game Notes | Nevada Athletics