Seniors facing final game Saturday when UNLV meets intrastate rival Nevada-Reno

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LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – Austin Ajiake and Daniel Gutierrez realize Saturday’s game could be their last as competitive football players.

There’s an emotional grip tied to such finality.

“I’m just grateful for everything that this game has brought to me and the relationships formed and the places I’ve been able to go,” said Ajiake, the senior linebacker who leads UNLV with 120 tackles, including 56 solo. “I don’t want to have any regrets leaving this season, and I don’t have any.”

Gutierrez, the team’s remarkably efficient senior kicker, sees Saturday against Nevada-Reno, the despised intrastate rival, in pretty much the same light.

“I’m extremely grateful to even be here,” he said. “Not everyone gets to do what we do. This week could be my last time ever putting on pads, so I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as I can.”

In the 48th meeting to decide who get possession of the Fremont Cannon for the next year, the Rebels (4-7, 2-5 in the Mountain West) will be trying to end a six-game losing streak. UNR (2-9, 0-7) has lost nine in a row. Kickoff at Allegiant Stadium is 3 p.m., with the game televised by the Silver State Sports & Entertainment Network and being streamed live by the Mountain West.

But the seniors, that’s one of the many things on the mind of coach Marcus Arroyo as he ends his third season at UNLV.

“Big week, rivalry week, it’s senior night, Cannon night,” Arroyo said. “Nothing is more important right now.”

Arroyo said it’s difficult to explain what the end means for a player, part of a tight-knit group. So forgive him for perhaps being overly sentimental.

“The last time you sit in a locker room with a group with time invested in something that’s really special to you, it’s really hard,” he said. “And it doesn’t hit you till it’s there.”

Ajiake hopes there’s a chance at shot at the pros, but he seemed realistic. He said his career at UNLV, especially this season, has been a lesson in leadership. He went from fighting for a role on special teams to being a starter and a captain. And in between there were injuries to overcome.

“A wild journey,” he said. “But I’ve always had that work ethic thing. I just figured that if you work harder than everyone else, there’d be no choice but to have you on the field.”

Gutierrez, a walk-on, is the school’s career scoring leader with 271 points. But he said he almost quit UNLV twice, including as a freshman. “And then junior year, I just felt like this wasn’t for me.”

His family, particularly his mother, told him to give it another shot. “Luckily, I listened to my mom. … I had to learn that this wasn’t just about me,” he said. “It humbled me a lot.

“I guess I used that as motivation to get where I am today.”

Both players said they’ll focus on team over personal feelings on Saturday, which is Senior Day at Allegiant.

UNR leads the series 28-19, including two straight wins and four of the past six.

Ajiake, 2-2 against UNR, believes the program’s positive strides this season signal a turnaround. Beating UNR would mean another step in being known as the class “that laid the foundation,” he said.

For Gutierrez, 2-3 versus the Wolf Pack, it’s a little simpler.

“You want to be the best team in your state,” he said.

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