RENO — UNLV senior defensive tackle Tyler Gaston hasn’t touched the Fremont Cannon, and he won’t unless the Rebels win it back today.
“At a young age,” Gaston said, “I was taught not to put my hands on things that don’t belong to me. So until it belongs to me and belongs to this team, then we’ll worry about that.”
The cannon has been painted blue for the past eight years, UNR dominating the tense football series with UNLV, and the Rebels are sick of it.
They get a chance to do something about it when the teams meet at 3 p.m. at UNR’s Mackay Stadium.
Though UNLV (4-3, 2-1 Mountain West) is a 6½-point underdog, the Rebels believe they have the team to break the long losing streak against the Wolf Pack (3-4, 2-2). This will be the first UNR team since 2003 that didn’t have Rebels tormentor Chris Ault as its coach, though his name is on the field.
“This week, if I have to even open my mouth, I’ve got the wrong guys in the locker room, and I don’t,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “I’ve got the right guys. I won’t have to say a dang word to our guys this week. They all know who we play this weekend.”
UNLV already has accomplished more than any of Hauck’s three previous teams. The Rebels have doubled the victory total from any of those teams, put together their first four-game winning streak since 2000 and come from behind to win three games for the first time since 2008.
Now they Rebels can take another step forward, and beating UNR would be a big one. They know the urgency of this week.
“We can’t lose this game,” Gaston said. “It’s imperative.”
A victory would show the Rebels truly are turning around the program, bringing them to within one game of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since winning the Las Vegas Bowl in 2000.
“When you think back to all the players who have been here and didn’t win … you want to do it for them as much as for anybody else,” offensive tackle Brett Boyko said.
But UNLV probably won’t have one of its best players. Running back Tim Cornett is listed as doubtful with a right leg injury suffered in last Saturday’s 38-14 loss at Fresno State. He averages 101.3 yards per game and has rushed for nine touchdowns.
If Cornett doesn’t play or is limited, Shaquille Murray-Lawrence and Adonis Smith will handle the load.
UNR has struggled badly against the run, so there is a chance for UNLV to take control on the ground no matter who is given the ball. The Wolf Pack allow 287.1 yards rushing per game and 7.1 per carry, giving up more than 300 yards four times. Boise State rushed for 407 yards and five touchdowns in last Saturday’s 34-17 victory over UNR.
On the other side of the ball, UNLV probably will be mostly concerned with defending Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo. He has completed 69.5 percent of his passes for 1,393 yards and seven touchdowns, with no interceptions. Fajardo also has rushed for 284 yards and five touchdowns.
Playing in Reno won’t make the Rebels’ task any easier.
A sellout is expected, and it’s usually a raucous atmosphere no matter the size of crowd. Former Rebels coach John Robinson was hit by an empty plastic beer bottle in 2003, and fans have tossed batteries at UNLV players.
Robinson sent a message to the hostile crowd by running up the score in 2001 with a late Jason Thomas touchdown run.
UNLV would settle for the simple message of a victory today. A victory that would speak volumes.
“We consider this the most important game on our schedule,” Hauck said. “It’s a rivalry game, and maybe the greatest thing in sports is the college football rivalry. So we view this week different than our other 11.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.