The unthinkable as far as Nevada Wolf Pack football is concerned has happened. The Fremont Cannon will spend the next year painted red and living in Las Vegas.
“We let down 450,000 people,” Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said after a stunning 27-22 loss to the UNLV Rebels in front of 32,521 fans on Saturday at sold-out Mackay Stadium. “I just hope everybody continues to support us.”
The Wolf Pack turned the ball over twice and was called for 13 penalties in losing to UNLV for the first time since 2004. The Wolf Pack’s eight-game winning streak — which coincided with former coach Chris Ault’s invention of the pistol offense in 2005 — was the longest in the 44-year-old rivalry.
“My name is now the Wolf Pack quarterback that lost the cannon,” said Fajardo, who tossed his first interception of the season in the first half. “I am real sick to my stomach.”
The cannon has resided at Cashell Fieldhouse on the Nevada campus since the Wolf Pack beat UNLV 22-14 on Sept. 17, 2005.
“It was gone when we got back to the locker room (after the game),” Wolf Pack defensive tackle Jordan Hanson said. “It’s a terrible feeling.”
UNLV improved to 5-3 overall and 3-1 in the Mountain West. The reeling Wolf Pack, which has now lost three games in a row, dropped to 3-5, 2-3. This is the first season the Pack finds itself under .500 after eight games since 2002 when they also started 3-5.
“I’m proud of our guys, ecstatic,” said UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, who is now 1-3 in the rivalry. “I don’t know how we will get (the cannon to Las Vegas). But we saved a seat on the plane.”
The Wolf Pack now has a huge empty space in Cashell Fieldhouse that won’t be filled until next year.
“I’m disappointed for our fans, for our team, for our coaches and for our alumni,” said Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian, who lost for the first time in four home games. “But the reality of the thing is that we didn’t deserve to win that game.”
Polian blamed the 13 Wolf Pack penalties and having to settle for three Brent Zuzo field goals (from 40, 22 and 43 yards out) as the main reasons for the loss. The Wolf Pack’s only touchdowns came on a busted coverage by UNLV on a 61-yard pass from Fajardo to Richy Turner and on a 9-yard Fajardo pass to Aaron Bradley with 3:25 to go.
“In my mind the story of this game is simple,” Polian said. “We had 13 penalties for over 100 (105) yards. It’s unacceptable. That many penalties is incredibly difficult to overcome. It has to be fixed.”
The Wolf Pack took a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter after Zuzo’s first two field goals. It was the second field goal, though, that still bothered Polian after the game. The Pack had a first-and-goal from the Rebels’ 2-yard line on the drive and had to settle for Zuzo’s 22-yarder with 12:55 to go in the second quarter. Running back Don Jackson lost two yards on first down and Fajardo lost a yard on second down before tossing an incomplete pass intended for Brandon Wimberley in the end zone on third down.
“We’re first-and-goal at the 2 and we go backward,” Polian said. “We have to stop kicking field goals in the red zone.”
UNLV took a 7-6 lead on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Caleb Herring to Maika Mataele with just under 10 minutes to go in the second quarter. Herring also connected with Devante Davis for a 14-13 UNLV lead with 4:18 to go in the second quarter.
The UNLV quarterback completed 29-of-42 passes without an interception for 335 yards and three touchdowns. His third touchdown pass, an 11-yarder to Davis with 5:54 to go, proved to be the game-winner.
“This is the greatest feeling,” Herring said. “Knowing what you came here to do makes that smile bigger.”
It was just two years ago that Herring completed just 1-of-14 passes for a mere eight yards in a 37-0 loss to the Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium.
“I had to put that behind me,” Herring said. “Some would say that’s hard but our goal was now.”
“When we were here two years ago he played about as badly as he could,” Hauck said. “Left beat down mentally, he had to make a decision on what he was going to do. To his credit he went back to work to improve and he’s a shining example to young players all over the country when you do things right.”
Herring also ran for 34 yards on 11 carries. Fajardo, by comparison, completed 24-of-40 passes with one interception for 357 yards and two touchdowns. The Pack quarterback, who started for the first time in his Pack career in the UNLV game two years ago, ran for 29 yards on nine scrambles.
“Anytime you get a chance to redeem yourself it’s satisfying,” Herring said. “But bringing the cannon home is redemption enough.”
The Wolf Pack also gave Herring and the Rebels a little help. Still clinging to their 16-14 halftime lead, the Pack had control of the ball and the game early in the fourth quarter. Fajardo then connected with Bradley on a slant for an apparent first down at about the Wolf Pack 35-yard line. UNLV’s Tajh Hasson, though, stripped Bradley of the ball. The Rebels’ Frank Crawford picked it up and advanced it to the Pack 27-yard line.
Herring and the Rebels took full advantage of the Pack turnover, scoring a touchdown on a 9-yard run by Tim Cornett just three plays later for a 21-16 lead.
“That was big,” said Polian of Bradley’s fumble. “We got a chunk play (on offense). We had the momentum.”
The Wolf Pack, which rallied from a 28-7 deficit last year to beat UNLV 42-37, almost did it again on Saturday. Herring’s third touchdown pass of the day gave UNLV a 27-16 lead with just under six minutes to play but the Pack quickly answered.
“The crowd was behind us,” Fajardo said. “We felt we could come back.”
Fajardo moved the Wolf Pack offense 72 yards on just eight plays, culminating in a 9-yard touchdown to Bradley with 3:25 to go. The Wolf Pack went for two points on the conversion but UNLV defensive lineman Jeremiah Valoaga tipped a Fajardo pass intended for Turner in the end zone. Turner was interfered on the play but the penalty was waived off because the pass was tipped.
“We thought we had a chance to win after that,” Fajardo said.
The Wolf Pack started its final drive on its own 12-yard line with 2:15 to go. A personal foul on UNLV gave the Pack a first down at their own 34.
The drive, though, ended at the Wolf Pack 40-yard line as a Fajardo pass intended for Jerico Richardson was knocked away by Hasson.
“Our coaches warned me it was coming,“ said Hasson of Fajardo’s last pass. “I was prepared.“
The Wolf Pack, which led 16-14 at halftime against UNLV, has now scored just six points in the second half over its last two games combined. They were shut out in the second half in a 34-17 loss at Boise State last week.
“Going in the game we knew we couldn’t get into a lot of third-and-long situations,” Fajardo said. “But because of all the penalties that’s exactly what we were in all night.”
“On offense, clearly we regressed a little,” Polian said.
UNLV had more first downs (29-18) than the Wolf Pack but the Wolf Pack had more yards (487-484).
“They made plays when they had the opportunity and we didn’t,” said Polian, who outfitted the Wolf Pack in new silver chrome helmets for the game.
“Even if we would have won I wouldn’t have said we won because of the helmets,” Polian said. “That was just something I wanted to do for this rivalry game. Look, UNLV didn’t win this game because they had more energy or because the rivalry means more to them. They won because they executed and we lost because of all our self-inflicted wounds.”
The Wolf Pack now has to get used to life without the cannon.
“There was a lot of bad energy in the locker room (after the game),” Wolf Pack linebacker Jonathan McNeal said. “Everybody was down. It was just bad.”