LAS VEGAS — Last season's 27-22 loss to UNLV didn't sit well with Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo.
And on July 16 he tweeted: "The greatest part of the 2014 schedule is ending our senior year bringing back the cannon! #Cannonwillbeblue #seniors #justwatch."
Saturday Fajardo made good on his proclamation, rushing for 143 yards and a touchdown, while throwing for three additional scores, to lead the Wolf Pack to a 49-27 win over in-state rival UNLV in Saturday's Battle for the Fremont Cannon.
"It's a big deal to get (the cannon) back," Nevada coach Brian Polian said. "This cannon means a lot to the people in the northern part of the state. It ate me up for a year. In my first year we lost it and it was painted red."
Trailing 17-14 at halftime, Nevada (7-5, 4-4 Mountain West) outscored the Rebels 21-3 in the third quarter en route to a 35-10 second half to pull away for the win.
"Our team deserves a lot of credit ... those running backs ran their butts off tonight," Polian said. "We were hitting the safety — the unblocked defender — and we were knocking him backward for four and five yards and to have three guys go over a hundred, that's a pretty special deal there. They did a really good job of keeping their poise in the second half. To run it the way we ran it, we showed that we were tough guys tonight — physically and mentally."
In its first possession of the second half, Nevada ran the ball directly at UNLV, using rushing plays in 10 of the first 11 plays of the scoring drive before Fajardo connected with Jerico Richardson on a 12-yard pass to give the Wolf Pack a 21-17 lead. The Rebels answered by driving 46 yards on eight plays and cutting Nevada's lead to 21-20 after Jonathan Leiva booted a 23-yard field goal.
From there, Nevada dominated and scored 28 unanswered points to pull away for the decisive win.
Nevada won the turnover battle, 4-1, picking off three Blake Decker passes and recovering a muffed punt. In the Wolf Pack's seven wins it had 19 turnovers, while it had just seven in five losses.
"The big thing is obviously the turnovers," said UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, whose five-year tenure with the Rebels came to an end. "When you're up against it in a rivalry game, it's not going to go well. The team that gets takeaways will win the game. It was a tough physical battle. It was a heck of a game until we were going in and threw the ball to them a couple of times."
The Wolf Pack offense outgained UNLV (2-11, 1-7), 454-376, with 408 yards coming on the ground. Nevada had three rushers gain more than 100 yards, as Don Jackson rumbled for 132 yards on 22 carries and James Butler tallied 116 yards on 11 attempts.
UNLV looked as if it would prove formidable in the first half, as it brushed off an early turnover and 7-0 deficit when Decker drove the Rebels 75 yards in 10 plays and found Devante Davis for a 3-yard TD strike to tie the score, 7-7. The Rebels took the lead early in the second quarter when Decker hooked up with Devonte Boyd on a 24-yard touchdown reception, then took a 10-point lead when Leiva kicked a 44-yard field goal.
Nevada carried momentum to the locker room, scoring a touchdown with 1:31 left in the half, when Fajardo found Richy Turner on an 18-yard pass play, cutting UNLV's lead to three.
"We talked at length about keeping our poise and no self-inflicted wounds, and you look at the first half and we have dropped balls, numerous penalties — a couple of majors — but the drive at the end to punch it in to make it a 3-point game and then to come out and start the second half with a long drive ... I'm very proud of our guys," Polian said. "They came out in the second half and showed mental toughness."
Decker finished with 21 completions on 39 attempts for 171 yards, while throwing two touchdowns and three interceptions. Shaquille Murray-Lawrence finished with 135 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown for the Rebels, whose first order of business during the offseason will be to find a new coach.
"I've had an awesome experience here," said Hauck, who turned his resignation in to UNLV's director of athletics Tina Kunzer-Murphy on Friday. "People I've worked with on campus have been terrific. The people of Las Vegas have been absolutely terrific for me and my family. A lot of people believed in what we were doing. We're proud of the fact that there were four winning seasons in this program."
Hauck, who had two years left on his contract, will receive a one-time payment of $400,000 to complete the University's financial obligations. The fifth-year coach, who compiled a record of 80-17 at the FCS-level University of Montana from 2003-09, finished his tenure with the Rebels with a record of 15-49 with the Rebels, including 11-28 in the Mountain West Conference.
"Despite the record, I think in terms of how our guys played, we transformed into a team that plays hard and is highly competitive," Hauck said. "We played our tails off and were physical. I wish our record was better obviously."
Last year he led the Rebels to their first appearance in a bowl game since 2000 with an overall record of 7-6 and became the first UNLV coach to win five Mountain West games (5-3).