Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016 | 7:30 p.m.
UNLV players retreated toward the locker room with their heads down, most of them not even looking up as their UNR rivals wheeled the Fremont Cannon over the Rebel logo at midfield.
After going red for a year, college football’s heaviest rivalry trophy was already partially back in blue as visiting fans coated it with spray paint. The Wolf Pack conquered the cannon by marching over the field at Sam Boyd Stadium as unobstructed during the game as they did afterwards, obliterating UNLV 45-10 in both teams’ season finale.
“I’m disappointed in our lack of preparedness, our lack of physicality,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “They just took us out to the woodshed today.”
After Sanchez corralled perhaps the finest win of his two-year tenure as UNLV coach two weeks ago, he now suffered what was likely the most humiliating loss. UNR was one of the worst teams in the nation statistically, and UNLV wasn’t even competitive in getting outgained by more than 200 yards.
The Rebels entered the game as a 9.5-point favorite but couldn’t stay within single digits of UNR outside of the first eight minutes.
“I don’t think there’s any explanation,” UNLV senior linebacker Ryan McAleenan said. “We just came out flat and weren’t ready to go in the beginning of the game.”
UNR immediately looked more like the team that had dominated the rivalry, winning eight straight from 2005 to 2013, not the one that had lost two of the past three in the series before Saturday. Sophomore quarterback Ty Gangi, making his fifth career start, sprung a 19-yard touchdown run to cap an eight-play, 65-yard scoring drive in just more than four minutes on the first drive.
UNR faced little resistance in adding two more scores, a 25-yard field goal from freshman Spencer Pettit and a 33-yard touchdown run from junior James Butler, before UNLV picked up a first down.
“When one side is struggling, the other’s got to be able to pick it up,” Sanchez said. “We were not able to do that.”
UNR committed extra defenders near the line of scrimmage to compensate for a defense ranked last in the nation by total rushing yards allowed. The Wolf Pack dared the Rebels to go outside of their rushing comfort zone and throw the ball to an injury-depleted receiving corps.
UNLV was incapable, as junior quarterback Kurt Palandech went 9-for-22 passing for only 121 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Senior running back David Greene was the lone player with more than two receptions, as he caught three passes for 20 yards to nearly double his prior season total of two receptions for 24 yards.
“We didn’t play our best game by any means,” Palandech said. “A lot of plays were left out there, and I take a lot of responsibility for those.”
Palandech made arguably the only memorable play from UNLV, though. In the second quarter, he broke three tackles and spun away from a fourth defender as part of a 27-yard touchdown run.
The problem was, UNR made such elusiveness look ordinary. Gangi gained 1 more yard on the ground than Palandech, 99 to 98, on five less carries, 14 to nine.
And Butler may have slipped away from more defenders than all of the Rebels combined. Butler stiff-armed and trucked his way to a career-high 196 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries.
“That’s the frustrating thing when you’re sitting there watching it,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got guys who have to do a better job tackling.”
UNLV didn’t improve in the second half, where it was shut out and gave up points to UNR on three of four drives.
Despite the loss, the Rebels finished the season with a record that was a win better than last year both overall and in the Mountain West — 4-8 and 3-5, respectively. The Wolf Pack had the same mark in conference but a game better overall.
They also took back the cannon, and they took it back easily.
“It was almost like we regressed back to the beginning,” Sanchez said. “We looked like a tired, worn-down football team, and it’s unacceptable to be that in a game as big as that.”