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UNLV-UNR rivalry needs to get groove back

RENO — When UNLV plays at UNR at noon Saturday in Mackay Stadium, the players won’t be thinking of the most consequential game in series history.

They weren’t even born when that showdown took place in 1994 at Sam Boyd Stadium, and most might not be aware of the storylines that played out that November day.

Considering where the intensity was then compared to now, 25 years ago seems like ancient history. Neither UNLV (3-8, 1-6 Mountain West) nor UNR (7-4, 4-3) are playing for anything substantial, the Rebels’ Tony Sanchez is coaching his final game after officially getting fired Monday, and the combination of Thanksgiving weekend and a snowy forecast could create rows of empty seats.

How does that buzz return?

Appropriately given the differences between the northern and southern halves of the state, opinions are varied.

Sanchez wants the game moved to Nevada Day weekend, and since the teams began to meet on the season’s final week in 2016, the largest crowd was the 23,569 who turned out that first year in Las Vegas.

Attendance didn’t crack 20,000 the past two years. The year before the game moved to Thanksgiving week, 29,551 showed up in Reno.

“I think having the student bodies gone takes away from it a little bit,” Sanchez said. “It’s nice having it the last week of the season, but I think any time you can pack the stadium (it’s beneficial).”

Former UNR coach Chris Ault, whose name is as synonymous with the intensity of this rivalry as with being the father of the pistol offense, likes the game being on the final weekend because it magnifies the importance. And, Ault said, Nevada is the rare state without junior college football and only two FBS programs.

“You’re either a winner or a loser for year, and at the end of the year regardless of what your record is, the game becomes a championship game to itself,” said Ault, a College Football Hall of Famer. “In the middle of the year, it never was.”

What could truly restore the luster would be if both programs became more relevant. UNR clearly is further along than the Rebels, but the Wolf Pack still are searching for a return to the days when they expected to compete for conference titles.

In 1994, the same year a cast of relative unknowns began the hit TV series “Friends,” all was on the line when the teams met in Las Vegas. UNR already had clinched a share of the Big West Conference championship, but the winner would advance to the Las Vegas Bowl.

What’s more, Ault returned to coaching after a one-year hiatus when Jeff Horton bolted the Wolf Pack to coach the Rebels, creating even more bad blood between the programs.

UNLV’s DeJohn Branch rushed for a 4-yard touchdown with 58 seconds left to give the Rebels a 32-27 upset victory.

Not as much has been on the line since, but the animosity between the teams remains. No doubt the Rebels will face a fired up UNR team that blew a 23-0 lead last season and lost to UNLV 34-29.

“Certainly, I didn’t like it, and I don’t think anybody liked it up here,” Ault said. “But it happened, and the reality of it is you’re going to live with that for a year.”

More Rebels: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Rebels and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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