He had a score to settle. A 77-56 score, to be exact.
That was the humiliating final tally last year in the season-finale against Middle Tennessee.
“I definitely took it personal and I put it on myself, really, and I told the defense that on Monday,” Al-Shaair said. “I’ll just never forget walking off that field, and I remember making that last play and I walked all the way to the sideline. I walked in the locker room. I didn’t shake nobody’s hand. I didn’t do anything. I just walked in the locker room and I told myself I wouldn’t feel like that again.”
He didn’t even feel remotely like that on Saturday night.
Ten months after the beat down, in a statement victory sure to get the attention of other Conference USA foes, FAU cruised to a 38-20 victory in the conference opener for both schools. Mission complete.
“Everything that I did was to help our team feel like this,” Al-Shaair said. “It’s great.”
Al-Shaair’s ability to take part in that feeling was in jeopardy much of the week.
The junior injured his elbow against Bethune-Cookman two weeks ago and didn’t play in last week’s loss at Buffalo.
Despite barely practicing this week, Al-Shaair assured coach Lane Kiffin – actually he pretty much told Kiffin – he would play on Saturday.
“Azeez said earlier in the week – I’m not going to use the same language – but basically that he’s playing in this game and no one’s stopping him because he’s vowed to change what happened a year ago,” Kiffin said.
Did Kiffin doubt that Azeez would make good on his promise?
“Me? no. Doctors? Maybe, yeah,” Kiffin said.
Al-Shaair’s return stabilized what had been a shaky FAU run defense. Ranked one of the worst rushing defenses nationally, FAU surrendered only 69 rushing yards to a Blue Raiders team that ran for 495 yards less than a year ago.
MTSU ran the ball so frequently last year in part because the Owls knocked Blue Raiders quarterback John Urzua out of the game in the first quarter. Without a backup, MTSU used wide receiver Richie James as a wildcat quarterback, and James ran wild, racing to more than 200 yards.
Not surprisingly, the Blue Raiders returned to the wildcat during their second possession of the game. With James injured and unable to play on Saturday, Ty Lee took the direct snap. Al-Shaair met him in the hole, planted him, then menacingly stood over Lee.
“Honestly, I was hoping that’s what they came out in,” Al-Shaair said. “Something that we definitely said, we want them to try us like that – come out in the wildcat, think they were just going to do what they did last year. It’s a whole new team.”
The tackle on the wildcat play was the first of seven tackles for Al-Shaair on the night. Having already played though a torn labrum last year, Al-Shaair wasn’t concerned that one hit would send him to the sideline.
He battled. He completed the mission.
“For a guy to go out and play like that – the guy really didn’t practice for two weeks at all – and then to go play like that is unbelievable,” Kiffin said.