UNLV vs. UNR: Cornett’s health is crucial in battle for the Fremont Cannon

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV running back Tim Cornett gets past Hawaii defensive back Charles Clay on his way to scoring a touchdown during the second half Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, at Sam Boyd Stadium. UNLV won 39-37 on a last-second field goal.

Fremont Cannon

Football team with Fremont Cannon circa 1974. (UNLV Photo Services) Launch slideshow »

A child born eight years ago has never seen the Fremont Cannon painted red. UNLV intends to end that streak Saturday in Reno, though the Rebels will face an uphill battle.

UNLV (4-3, 2-1) and UNR (3-4, 2-2) kick off at 3 p.m. on ESPN3.com. On paper, it looks much closer than the matchup has in recent years. The Wolf Pack come in with an eight-game winning streak in the series, but coach Chris Ault won all of those. First-year coach Brian Polian is rebuilding the squad, which has lost back-to-back Mountain West games.

On the other side are the Rebels, who are clearly better than years past but may have to play without starting running back Tim Cornett. Cornett’s absence could affect this game in a big way, and the Rebels are already 6.5-point underdogs.

The game is officially a sellout, the first for a UNLV game at Mackay Stadium since 2003. The teams look about as even as they’ve been in the past six years, so UNLV should have a great chance to paint the cannon red before those kids turn 9.

Three storylines

1. The Cornett quandary

No debate about this game can really be complete until we know whether UNLV’s all-time leading rusher is going to play. He obviously affects the expectations for the Rebels’ offense and would be greatly missed in this and any other game.

Cornett took a helmet hit to his right knee in the third quarter against Fresno State and missed the rest of the game. He’s been limited in practice and is officially listed as doubtful with a leg injury.

Cornett played through a shoulder injury for most of the 2012 season, so it’s going to take a serious injury to keep him off the field.

If he can’t go, the starting role would fall to junior Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, with fellow junior Adonis Smith the top backup. Murray-Lawrence has been very good in a secondary role, and we may soon find out how he fares with the majority of the carries.

2. First to 40 wins

Last year’s game was a gut punch for the Rebels, who led by 17 at halftime and lost 42-37. This year’s game looks like it will be another shootout, pitting a couple of capable offenses against defenses that rank in the bottom 20 nationally in points allowed.

In each of the Rebels’ past four games, the winner has scored at least 38. And both teams scored at least 40 in two of UNR’s past three games. Obviously Cornett’s health could affect this from UNLV’s point of view, but the passing game should still operate at full strength.

3. Hangover cure

UNLV shouldn’t have too much trouble bouncing back from last week’s loss at Fresno State. This is mainly because the Bulldogs were clearly the better team, and it’s easier to move on to the next game when that game is this one.

Still, there’s concern that the Rebels might be stuck on last year’s blown lead against the Wolf Pack. Enough pieces are different and even the venue is changed, so the similarities are few. But if UNLV gets out to a double-digit lead, there won’t be a comfortable Rebel until the game is over.

Key matchup

UNLV’s offensive line vs. UNR’s defensive line

This is an important battle no matter what, more so if Cornett can’t play. Murray-Lawrence is really good at exploding through the line for a big gain but he needs the hole to be there. Cornett is great at waiting for his opening; Murray-Lawrence barrels straight into the line whether there’s space or not. Creating a few more holes could help UNLV succeed without Cornett if he’s not able to play.

Over/Under: 450 offensive yards for UNLV

The Rebels’ offense never really got going against Fresno State, but it was the catalyst of the team’s four-game winning streak. UNR gives up a lot of points, and UNLV ought to be able to score. Hit at least the 450 mark and the Rebels should be in the game down the stretch.

That’s what he said: “We’ll figure that one out if we can get it done.” — Bobby Hauck on where he would put the Fremont Cannon

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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