This week many of those same Owls are drawing strength from that shameful performance, attempting to prove to MTSU on Saturday, and all of Conference USA for that matter, that this defense will no longer be abused. It will deliver the abuse.
“Obviously there’s an edge with what happened last year,” safety Jalen Young said. “That’s motivating us to play even harder than we’re already playing.”
Already guaranteed of another postseason sitting a home, the Owls flew into Murfreesboro last December with a 3-8 record, playing for little more than their pride. The Blue Raiders stripped that from FAU, too.
MTSU slashed and darted to 495 rushing yards, sprinting to 11 touchdowns – the most ever allowed by an FAU defense – and a 77-56 victory over the Owls.
“It’s something that you think about but you let that drive you to be better – obviously you don’t want that to set you back,” linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said. “I mean 77 points? This is a completely different defense.”
The most shocking part of those 77 points? MTSU scored that many playing most of the game without a college quarterback. After FAU knocked back-up quarterback John Urzua, playing for the injured Brent Stockstill, out of the game in the first quarter, MTSU ran direct snaps to running backs and receivers.
Wide receiver Richie James owned the night, rushing for 213 yards and three touchdowns, and throwing for 76 yards. He also caught a touchdown pass.
“Seventy-seven points is unacceptable,” FAU running back Kerrith Whyte said. “That can’t happen. Defense, they are doing their thing this year. I know they are going to shut them down.”
Statistically speaking, FAU’s defense isn’t all that much better than it was last year. Surrendering 259.5 rushing yards per game, the Owls rank No. 121 out of 129 teams nationally against the run.
But part of that can be attributed to who the Owls played. Few teams find much success stopping Navy’s triple option – the Midshipmen are off to a 3-0 start. The Wisconsin Badgers have long been beasts on the ground. And maybe the 204 rushing yards FAU allowed to Buffalo last week can be ascribed to the absence of Al-Shaair, the Owls’ leading tackler who says he intends to play on Saturday despite FAU coach Lane Kiffin labeling the junior as a game-time decision.
Almost every Owl this week said comparing this year’s defense to the one that surrendered 77 points is pointless.
“It is different,” Young said. “Everybody’s different, from the coaching staff to the players.”
Those players are, for the most part, significantly better than last year. Conference USA defensive Player of the Year Trey Hendrickson is now playing for the New Orleans Saints, but the Owls added bulk in defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni and speed in defensive end Earnest Bagner.
The linebackers – Al-Shaair was the only healthy regular who finished last year’s game – are healthy, for the most part. And FAU’s secondary has newfound depth, with true freshman Zyon Gilbert lining up next to Young as a starting safety, four strong cornerbacks, and true freshman nickel Quran Hafiz making significant contributions defensively.
One newcomer on offense, wide receiver DeAndre McNeal, admitted shock when he heard the Owls surrendered 77 points – “I’m from Texas. You don’t even hear about 77 points in a college game,” he quipped – but cautioned some on defense about leaning too heavily on the revenge factor.
“I’ve been told from previous players that it’s kind of like a statement game – a rematch game,” McNeal said. “But I told them, don’t think of it that way. It’s just a regular game. They have football players. We have football players. It’s just a game.”
That message may not have made it’s way to Young, who insists the proud Owls need to make that statement in this, the Conference USA opener, to let other conference foes know they won’t be pushed around this season.
“As a defense, I feel like we need to come out and show that we’re dominant,” Young said. “And that’s something that we are. We are dominant and I’m going to sit here and say that we are a dominant defense. That’s something we’ve got to prove every week, every team we go against.”