The last time I saw UNLV play Northern Illinois in football was 25 years ago. It smelled of corn on that crisp autumn afternoon; the game was in DeKalb. Brad Rothermel was the UNLV athletic director. He introduced me to his folks, who were from back there, from Rockford.
Northern Illinois won 42-24.
The programs were playing football on more of an even plane then.
Two years ago, Northern Illinois played in the Orange Bowl. Winners of 16 consecutive road games coming into Saturday’s contest against the Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium, the Huskies last week manhandled a Big Ten team, even if it was only Northwestern.
Winners of one consecutive home game coming in, UNLV last week defeated Northern Colorado 13-12. Northern Colorado is probably the worst team in the Big Sky Conference, if that sheds any light.
So the Huskies of the Mid-American Conference have been playing football on an astral plane, like in that old “Dream Weaver” song, while the Rebels have been playing on a lot lower plane.
But this being college football, after falling behind 28-5 in the third quarter, the Rebels stormed back to tie it at 34 early in the fourth.
Would they shock the Huskie Nation, which is what NIU insists on calling its small band of supporters?
They would not.
They lost 48-34.
The Rebels were driving late with another chance to tie before a tipped pass was intercepted in the end zone. Give UNLV tons of credit for hanging in there.
Because these teams were on such different planes I had pretty much decided to focus on the trenches Saturday, because the trench on the offensive side of the ball is where Brett Boyko plays left tackle.
He might be UNLV’s best player, although that Devante Davis kid who plays wide receiver — six catches, 150 yards, two TDs vs. NIU — is pretty good, too. But most people don’t know how good Boyko is, because most people watch the ball at football games instead of the hand-to-handful of jersey combat in the trenches.
Boyko stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall. He weighs 310 pounds. In high school in his native Canada he split time between quarterback — quarterback! — and the defensive line.
He played hockey, too. He could have been the Regina Pats checking line all by himself.
Earlier this week, Boyko, who is from Saskatoon where they have prairies and grain silos and whatnot, was ranked the No. 1 prospect for the Canadian Football League draft, ahead of a guy who plays running back at Yale and another guy who plays wide receiver at Manitoba, which isn’t the same as playing at Yale.
This would be a pretty cool honor for a guy from Saskatoon, were he not also considered a top prospect to play on Sunday in the other pro football league, the one with four downs, a narrow field and no teams named Roughriders, with or without the space.
(Boyko tells me when the Ottawa team rejoined the CFL, it changed its name from Rough Riders to Redblacks. Give ‘em a rouge for originality.)
Brett Boyko was one of the biggest reasons the Rebels were in the game early and then got back into it later. He almost always is.
On the Rebels’ first play from scrimmage, he smacked into No. 49 on NIU, that Jason Meehan guy who had sort of wreaked havoc with the Northwestern quarterbacks and ball carriers.
Boyko pushed at Meehan until he was about 7 yards down the field, and then he said “Way to go” or something, because Boyko is Canadian, and Canadians are among the friendliest people on earth, even when they are smacking you and pushing at you 7 yards down the field.
By my count, Boyko blocked at least five Northern Illinois defensive ends, which had to be difficult on a steamy night. It was 5-against-1, and his man didn’t make a tackle in the flow of the play until there was 1:21 left in the third quarter.
UNLV still made yards on that play. Boyko sort of tossed his head back, as if to say the Rebels should have made more yards had he only pushed that particular Northern Illinois DE 7 yards down the field, too.
“It’s tough,” Boyko said about having to block and push at five fresh guys on the same night. “You’ve got to stick to your rules and technique. There were a couple of times I got a little sloppy there. Obviously, the film doesn’t lie, so I will see that (today).”
But there were dozens of other times he wasn’t sloppy. When the coaches see that, they’ll give him another helmet decal or whatever.
On Shaquille Murray-Lawrence’s 9-yard touchdown run that tied it at 34 after a 2-point conversion, I saw this giant form in my binoculars block one of the myriad NIU defensive ends, and then the giant formed blocked another guy on the same play. The second guy might have been a linebacker before Boyko squashed him like an empty styrofoam coffee cup from Tim Hortons doughnuts.
Afterward, Boyko said he was proud of the way the Rebels battled back from that huge deficit and that he doesn’t mind toiling in the trenches in anonymity, because playing on the offensive line is like playing on the checking line in hockey. Then he thanked me for interviewing him, because he’s Canadian, and Canadians always say thanks.
On my way back to the press box, I bumped into three other people from Saskatoon who were wearing No. 69 jerseys. Their names were Pat, Rob and Nick Boyko. Brett’s mom, dad and brother confirmed that Brett had indeed played quarterback in high school, and that he also played defenseman on his hockey team. They also thanked me for stopping by.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.