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Is It a Rivalry? UNLV vs. Nevada

The battle for the cannon is one of the best in the Mountain West

UNLV v Nevada Photo by Jonathan Devich/Getty Images

In this new series, our writers will be looking at various Mountain West matchups and determining whether or not they qualify as rivalries. Our newest edition features UNLV vs. Nevada.

Record: Nevada has 26 wins to UNLV’s 19

Longest winning streak: Nevada’s longest winning streak is eight and UNLV’s is five.

Largest margin of victory: Nevada 50-8 in 1991. UNLV 45-7 in 1975.

How does each team feel about the opposition and its fanbase?

Alex: There is no love lost between the folks in the silver state. It seems that the rivalry and tension between both parties have grown in recent years. Under the previous head coach, Tony Sanchez, the program began to embrace its Las Vegas identity, and with that grew the tension between UNLV and Nevada. For UNLV football in recent years, they have been out of bowl contention by the time they play UNR, so winning the Fremont Cannon has been the most important thing for UNLV the past few years.

Matt: They don’t like each other. Never have, and likely never will. From the Red Defection game in 1994, to UNLV’s Quincy Sanders throwing his helmet at Chris Ault in 1995, to the program’s most recent brawl between both Nevada and UNLV players, along with the Nevada crowd last season — there is bad blood between the two schools. It’s an in-state rivalry between the only two Division-I programs in the state. The games always means something extra — regardless of how good the two programs are.

Would you consider the rivalry competitive?

Alex: It is certainly much more competitive the last eight years, with the teams splitting those eight games four apiece, and six of those eight games being decided by one score. So, it has been much more competitive than about a decade ago. I would still say that the Wolf Pack hold an advantage in the rivalry. The program has much more success than the Rebels. Things are improving for UNLV, so now could potentially be a turning point in the rivalry to see if the Rebels can take control of it.

Matt: Yes and no. Yes in regards to how tight the series is. It currently stands at a seven-game difference. In recent memory, as Alex mentioned, the Wolf Pack and the Rebels have split the last eight contests after Nevada commanded an eight-game win streak.

No, in terms of margin-of-victory. Among the 45 battles between the two schools, there have been 15 games decided by one possession (eight points or fewer); 29 games decided by double figures; 18 games decided by 20-plus points; 11 games decided by 30-plus points. It doesn’t seem competitive when there’s nearly double the double-digit games than one possession games. However, it has gotten better in recent memory, with six of the 10 contests decided by one possession (with just three 20-point games) since 2010. You could also argue it is not because of the lack of meaningful games, considering both teams have been in the same conference only for 12 combined seasons since the rivalry began in 1969.

Which matchups stick out in your mind?

Alex: There have been a lot of exciting games between these two teams in the last decade. Last year’s meeting, that saw the Rebels win in overtime and a fight break out after the game, will probably be a game no one ever forgets. But there are two that stick out to me where in 2017 and 2018.

In 2017, the Rebels were 5-6, just one win away from being bowl eligible and going to only the fifth bowl game in program history. Meanwhile, the Wolf Pack were 2-9 and simply playing for pride. UNLV held the lead for the entire first half and early on in the second half. Neavda scored two touchdowns to take a 23-16 lead. UNLV had the ball late with a chance to retake the lead but failed to convert on a third and two, and fourth and two to keep their drive alive and their chances for a win as Nevada won 23-16.

One game that went in the Rebels favor that they will remember for a long time was in 2018. The Wolf Pack sprinted out to an 23-0 lead early in the second quarter, and for the crowd at Sam Boyd Stadium, it appeared they would see another Neavda blowout win, a sight they had seen far too often. But UNLV scored three straight touchdowns to cut the deficit to single digits at halftime. UNLV took the lead late with an Armani Rogers touchdown and a late game interception from Javin White sealed the game for UNLV, 34-29.

Matt: Going off of recent memory, I would say the 2018 matchup that featured Nevada’s epic collapse definitely sticks out in my mind. Nevada was ahead 23-0 with 14:29 remaining in the second quarter. Up to that point, Nevada had 229 total yards of offense (on 22 plays) compared to UNLV’s 71 yards (on 18 plays). Three Wolf Pack turnovers later — including two interceptions in their final two possessions (one of which that led to UNLV’s game-winning score) — ultimately led to a 34-29 UNLV victory. Another semi-recent one that sticks out was the 2012 affair — Ault’s final coaching appearance in the Battle for the Fremont Cannon — which, this time, featured a Nevada comeback. UNLV — who was 1-5 entering the game — commanded a 28-7 lead with 4:03 left in the first half. Ault’s squad went on a 35-3 run over the next 33 minutes en route to a 42-37 victory. Nevada quarterback Devin Combs, who was making his first collegiate start for the injured Cody Fajardo, threw for 167 yards and ran for 111 more — accumulating three total touchdowns (two passing; one running).

Looking more historically, the first ever meeting in 1969 included a controversial game-winning kick from Nevada kicker John Barnes that some argue wasn’t good. The 30-28 Pack victory remains as the closest result the rivalry has ever had, too. As I discussed earlier, the Red Defection game is a notable one too. Jeff Horton, Ault’s successor for just the 1993 season, left for the Rebels prior to the 1994 season. Horton trumped Ault’s squad 32-27 in Horton’s only ever victory over Nevada. It’s a Benedict Arnold-like situation that some Pack fans will never dust off.

If you asked Nevada fans what they think about UNLV what would they say aloud? What would they secretly be thinking?

Matt: Nevada fans would probably claim that UNLV and its fans are the annoying little brother down south. They love to point out that Nevada has had much more success than UNLV as a football program. They have ammo to back that up — Nevada has 15 bowl appearances since joining Division-I in 1992; UNLV has just four since joining Division-I in 1978. The Wolf Pack own 11 conference championships (4 - Big Sky; 5 - Big West; 2 - WAC) since 1983, while the Rebels have only one (Big West - 1994) in the entirety of their program history. From a football prospective, Nevada fans would note the lack of talent UNLV brings in on a year-to-year basis when the city is host to a solid market of quality high school football programs (although, to be fair, most of the top-tier talent that comes out Las Vegas take their talents to power-5 programs over Mountain West schools, so I’ll digress). In terms of what they would think, most diehard Pack fans would probably think of this famous Ault quote: “Three things are red and none of them are good: The devil, communism and UNLV.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they said that, too.

If you asked UNLV fans what they think about Nevada what would they say aloud? What would they secretly be thinking?

Alex: It is not a problem for UNLV fans to voice their hate for Nevada. Whether it be chants at the games, clothing, or petty social media posts, UNLV fans will take any chance to say that they are better than Nevada. In private, I would say some UNLV fans are jealous of the success UNR has had as a football program compared to them. Nevada has only been a program at the D-I level since 1992 and they have been to 15 bowl games, compared to UNLV’s four since they became division one in 1978. Rebel fans feel that because they are in the better market, they should have more success, but the results do not fall in UNLV’s favor, which could be the reason for so much anti-Reno sediment from the folks in the scarlet and gray.

Final verdict, would you consider these two teams to be rivals?

Alex: Yes, these two teams are rivals. The passion between both the schools and the fan base is continuing to grow, and as will the despise for one another. Being the only two D-I schools in the state always draws eyes from everyone in the state when they play. And there will always be the “big brother, little brother,” feel from the residents of both cities. UNLV football is about to enter a new era, not just with another new coach, but with a new stadium and practice facility, so this could be a turning point in the program’s history. And with so many new opportunities, like taking control of the rivalry and keeping it competitive.

Matt: Yes, absolutely. Both the fans, coaches and players on both sides are passionate about this rivalry, and I think that’s what it boils down to. Since being hired, head coach Jay Norvell has taken the rivalry seriously — much like Ault did — despite falling in two out of the three matchups.

If you’re for one school, you’re against the other — that’s how rivalries goes and that’s how they all should be. It is better when both teams are competitive of course, which it hasn’t always been that way. But even when it’s not as competitive, there’s no love lost. With both teams on the up-swing, maybe there’s a situation where both teams are competing for the West Division in a few seasons, where certainly more tension will arise between the two foes.

To end on a fun fact, the Fremont Cannon is college football’s largest and most expensive trophy! The cannon itself, built in 1970, weighs about 545 pounds and cost $10,000 to build (roughly $66,000 in 2020 currency). One would think that the two schools competing for such a prize would be rivals, right? I would think so. When the Wolf Pack possess the Fremont Cannon, it sits under a sign that states: “The Fremont Cannon: The Largest ‘Rival’ Trophy in America.”