Nevada’s victory over archrival UNLV last Saturday evening was defined by both tenacity and grit.
The 40th meeting between the Wolf Pack and the Rebels for the Fremont Cannon looked to be another wash out after Nevada fell behind early. However, the Wolf Pack turned on the afterburners in the second half by reeling off 28 unanswered points to smash the Rebels and in turn, bring the Cannon back to Reno. With the victory, Nevada will finish the regular season with a 7-5 (4-4 MW) record and now hold a 24- 16 series advantage over UNLV.
Although UNLV came into the contest as nearly double-digit underdogs, the Rebels’ pass attack and Nevada’s defensive miscues gave UNLV some early momentum. Junior quarterback Blake Decker tore up the Wolf Pack defense in the first half by notching two touchdown throws and giving the Rebels a 10-point lead halfway through the second quarter.
Keyed up by the emotion of the game, the Nevada defensive front didn’t do itself any favors early. Junior defensive lineman Rykeem Yates was ejected from the game for a flagrant foul on a UNLV offensive lineman and aside from an interception from senior Charles Garrett, the Pack was tagged with six penalties in the first half.
Nonetheless, Nevada fought back and was able to draw within three points before halftime thanks to an 18-yard touchdown pass from Cody Fajardo to Richy Turner with 1:31 left in the half. Even though Fajardo threw an early interception, he still had a message for his teammates at halftime.
“We had been down before and we got a big score right before half so we had some of the momentum swing [our way],” Fajardo said. “We knew we had the ball coming into the second half and so we to come out and score so that we could ahead.”
Nevada did come down and score a touchdown on the first possession of the second half and after a UNLV field goal, the Pack scored 28 unanswered points. The pivotal turning point during that swing was a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown by junior defensive lineman Lenny Jones to put Nevada ahead by 15.
According to Jones, he predicted that he would score last week against Fresno State, but came 12 yards short of the end zone. He again predicted that he would score against the Rebels and the native of San Leandro, California was correct this time. Thanks to a key block from fellow defensive lineman Dupree Roberts-Jordan, Jones racked up six for Nevada.
After the play was over, Jones went to the sideline to celebrate the moment with a teammate that was unable to be on the field with him during the score.
“Right when I got it, I went to go celebrate with ‘Keem [Yates] because I knew he was down in the dumps about what happened,” Jones said. “At halftime he told me to go make a play for him and after I got it, I came back and celebrated with him [on the sideline.]”
After the pick six by Jones, the Pack never looked back. Nevada went on to outscore UNLV 35-10 in the second half. Fajardo, who had been battling a swollen knee leading up to the game, finished with four combined touchdowns to put him over 100 total in his career (he now has 101 during his time at Nevada).
However, it was not just the quarterback doing it all by himself on Saturday. Three Wolf Pack runners eclipsed the century mark in rushing yards against UNLV. Fajardo (143), junior Don Jackson (132) and freshman James Butler (116) were the first Nevada trio to go over 100 yards in a single game since 2010.
Fajardo admitted that the victory was a team effort and also the defining moment of this year’s senior class.
“The underclassmen played really well for us seniors and we had a team meeting on Sunday and all the seniors asked the underclassmen to give us all they had because this was a big game for us,” Fajardo said. “This is the biggest win of my career, hands down.”
After the game, Polian gave his condolences to Rebels head coach Bobby Hauck, who resigned from his head coaching position yesterday. Hauck, who had two years left on his contract, will receive a one-time payment of $400,000 to buy out the remainder of his contract.
Nonetheless, Polian acknowledged that while it was a huge victory, he has his sights set on a bigger prize.
“This game is bigger than us, to win it is a really big deal and I’m glad I don’t have to go to church and have people say, ‘Why is the cannon red?,’” Polian said. “But you know what I would like to do is go to a bowl and win an eighth [game].”
The following day, members of the Nevada football team painted the scarlet cannon a dark shade of silver and blue in front of the Joe Crowley Student Union to signify that the Pack will take ownership of the Fremont Cannon until next year’s meeting, at least.
Chris Boline can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @CDBoline.