It’s one thing to be told how significant a rivalry game is. It’s another to live it.
A few UNLV football assistant coaches witnessed that firsthand two years ago during their initial Fremont Cannon game at UNR.
“It is kind of funny,” coach Tony Sanchez said. “I was telling them it is a big, big deal when our bus goes around the corner and you get some kid giving us the specific finger. I am like, ‘Wow, here we go.’”
The narrative for locals rarely changes when discussing UNR. If UNLV wins, even if it is the lone win on the schedule, then it’s a successful season. If the Rebels lose, regardless of results in other games, it’s a failure.
Still, Saturday’s game at noon in Reno has more meaning. It’s the most important game in Sanchez’s three-year tenure because a Rebel victory would give them six wins and eligibility for a postseason bowl.
A final-second win last week at New Mexico already secured a win-total improvement for a third consecutive season in the Sanchez coaching era — tangible evidence the program is trending in the right direction.
But losing against two-win UNR, your hated rival and one of the worst defensive teams in the nation, would speak otherwise. Remember, many locals the program hopes will become passionate in following every game, not just this one, will judge the season on Saturday's outcome and nothing else.
What’s important is beating UNR; going bowling will be the cherry on top.
“Every game at UNLV is significant,” Sanchez said. “You are talking about a team that has been bleeding for a long time. Every chance we have to move the program forward, to show progress, to get ourselves in the conversation to get a bowl game, it’s a big, big deal.”
Senior defensive lineman Mike Hughes Jr., a local kid who has become a face of the team, has experienced the highs and lows of the rivalry. Two seasons ago, he saw the Rebels hang on in the fourth quarter to win at Reno. Last year, he was part of a depleted UNLV roster that put up little resistance in a blowout loss.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Last year was embarrassing.
“Seeing (the cannon) rolled away at the end of the game, that’s a picture that has been in my mind the whole year,” said Hughes, a Palo Verde graduate. “I’m definitely looking forward to bringing it back.”
When the Rebels rallied for the improbable win last week, Hughes became emotional on the sideline when realizing he could still reach in a bowl — an achievement many before him have failed to do.
The reality is this: Hughes is only guaranteed one more game in a UNLV uniform. He has one final try to paint the cannon Rebel red, get his name added to the wall at Rebel Park documenting players who have defeated UNR as seniors, and one last chance to reach a bowl game.
Hughes, the one player who is consistently a matchup problem on the Rebels’ inconsistent defense, has seen the program go from two wins during his freshman season to the cusp of the being bowl eligible. He’ll tell you this is just the beginning, proudly predicting a rise in relevance that he helped start.
Sanchez envisions growing the program to where the Fremont Cannon game isn’t the only game fans are consumed with each season. He wants to play in bowl games more than once a decade. Considering UNLV has never reached consecutive bowls, that's a lofty expectation. He wants it to where each week has meaning because the Rebels are playing for a league championship.
To do that, they need a win Saturday.
Don’t be fooled — this is more than the most important game in Hughes’ life. It could be program-changing for the Rebels.