TAMPA, Fla. — Following a season-defining victory against Alabama, No. 12 Auburn fell short in the Outback Bowl against No. 18 Minnesota, 31-24.
In what felt like a Minnesota home game the way the Golden Gopher faithful dominated the stands, the Auburn offense was mostly stagnant and the defense was unable to stop Minnesota’s marquee players.
“They outplayed us and they outcoached us and they deserved to win today,” said head coach Gus Malzahn postgame.
The start of the game could not have gone much better for the Tigers. On the first drive, Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan threw an interception to Javaris Davis, which the Tigers turned into a quick 3 points.
Minnesota was able to notch a field goal of their own on its next drive, tying the game at 3 apiece. The ensuing kickoff then landed in the hands of Noah Igbinoghene, who returned the ball for 96 yards and a touchdown. That kick return TD was the first in Outback Bowl history.
“We talked about scoring, and that’s exactly what we did,” Igbinoghene said.
With just shy of six minutes off the game clock, Auburn was up 10-3 and had all the momentum, until Minnesota punted.
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The Tiger defense stifled Minnesota’s third drive and forced a 37-yard punt to Christian Tutt. Tutt tried to make a diving save to secure the ball and missed, allowing the Gophers to regain possession. Three plays later, the game was tied at 10.
In the first quarter, Auburn only had the ball for 3:55 and ran only a total of nine plays for 21 yards.
On Minnesota’s first drive of the second quarter, which started at the Gopher 8-yard line, the away team was able to march methodically down the field and put up a touchdown.
Starting tailback Rodney Smith took a handoff for 31 yards and was touched by five Auburn defenders before he went down. Inability to stop the run and tackle backs out of the backfield was a major affliction for the Auburn defense throughout the whole matchup.
Down 17-10, Auburn was able to answer. For the second-longest play of Auburn’s afternoon, quarterback Bo Nix was able to scramble to his right and find a wide open Spencer Nigh along the sideline for 24 yards. Three plays later, the longest play of the day for the Tigers came. Senior wide receiver Sal Canella was the beneficiary of a Minnesota coverage breakdown, in his last college game, and was left wide-open for a 37-yard touchdown.
Auburn was able to even the score at 17 with 4:15 left to play in the half. The Minnesota running back tandem took the ball back, and Smith and counterpart Mohamed Ibrahim were able to fuel a Minnesota drive that ended in a score, and was highlighted by a 20-yard run by Ibrahim.
At this point in the game, 30 seconds left in the first half, Auburn had -5 rushing yards compared to Minnesota’s 72.
“Bottom line, they made plays,” Malzahn said. “They made the plays when the game was on the line and you gotta give them credit ... They made the plays we didn’t.”
To start the second half, Auburn was looking for a spark to put it back into the game or even tie the score. What it got was a Nix sack on third-and-3 that ended its drive and put the ball right back into the hands of Smith and Ibrahim.
The next Auburn possession was far more fruitful, as it saw JaTarvious Whitlow find his way into the endzone for a score, tying the game at 24.
But in the fourth quarter is where it all came undone. After punting to Minnesota early in the fourth, Morgan found game MVP Tyler Johnson for a 73-yard touchdown. Johnson dominated on the outside all day, hauling in 12 passes for 202 yards and two scores.
That score proved to be too much in the end, as Auburn never found the endzone again, losing its second bowl game in three years.
Only able to muster 56 yards on the ground on 26 attempts, Auburn was forced to the air for most of the game. Nix and company were only able to complete 17 passes for 176 yards, but there was no real definitive answer for Auburn offensively.
On the other side of the ball, there was simply no answer for Johnson. He was able to bail the Gopher offense out on plenty of drives, and the Gophers were able to extend drives on the ground where Auburn could not.
“Anytime you put up 232 yards of offense on 53 plays … we've got to do better than that,” Malzahn said.
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