TAMPA, FLA. — Tyler Johnson raced down the field and the Gopher fans rejoiced.
And across the way, the Auburn sideline fell silent.
Minnesota’s Johnson scored the game-deciding touchdown in the fourth quarter and sent Minnesota fans into a frenzy then as he sped into the end zone — and while Auburn stumbled on the way into the offseason with a 31-24 loss in the Outback Bowl on Wednesday in Raymond James Stadium.
Auburn’s up-and-down 2019 ended with one more low, and suddenly, when the Tigers stepped off the field for the final time, the drive to September’s season opener seemed that much harder.
Johnson, Minnesota’s NFL-bound star receiver, hauled in 12 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
“Bottom line is they out-played us and out-coached us,” a disappointed Gus Malzahn said under Raymond James Stadium after the loss. His offense never got in its best rhythm. Minnesota made big plays when it needed them. He owned the loss like the others this season, which came with a share of big victories. Auburn finished the season 9-4.
Now, he and Auburn’s returners get back to the Plains to pick up the pieces again, and pluck the good out of the bad from a roller coaster 2019 on the way into the 2020 season.
That fourth-quarter score by Johnson proved to be the game-winner. It was 24-24 at the time. He raced between the Auburn defense and out into open field before Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan hit him in stride for a one-play strike and the 73-yard touchdown.
Auburn didn’t have an answer in crunch time. The Tigers mustered one first down on the next drive, seemingly out of sync from the start of the game. Auburn managed just five rushing yards in a disjointed first half, and Minnesota ultimately outgained Auburn with 494 total yards compared to 232. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix was rushed to desperately throw the ball away on Auburn’s third-and-7 play moments after Johnson’s big touchdown. After that, Minnesota ran out the remaining eight minutes of the game clock, a big fourth-and-1 conversion by Morgan at the Auburn 41-yard line dealing Auburn a final blow.
Minnesota moved to 11-2 at the end of a stellar year. Auburn’s left to decipher a wild season that saw victories over rival Alabama and the Pac 12 champions at Oregon, but ultimately dealt four losses.
“This game, we’re disappointed, and we should be,” Malzahn said. “But we’ll rebound,” he vowed.
“9-4, with the schedule we played — Obviously if we won this game, I would feel completely different,” he said later. “There were some good things we did. We did play the toughest schedule in college football. Me personally, I don’t think it’s close.
“I’m proud of our players, I’m proud of our seniors. We’re disappointed right now. But there were some really good things that happened during the season that we can built upon, and have a chance to be a really good football team next year.”
Auburn led 10-3 early on the legs of a Noah Igbinoghene kickoff return for a touchdown, but the offense struggled to find a rhythm in the first half as Minnesota doubled up Auburn’s time of possession in the first two quarters and led 24-17 at the half. Auburn ran just eight plays in the first quarter, and only 53 in the game.
And Auburn managed just five rushing yards in the first half and 56 in the game. A strong share of those, 36, came on Auburn’s game-tying drive in the third quarter. JaTarvious Whitlow leapt over the Minnesota defense on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line out of the Wildcat, and Auburn battled back to tie the game.
But early in the fourth, Johnson struck like lightning. He put Minnesota up with 10:37 left. That one-play drive was the game-changer. After Auburn was stopped, Minnesota’s next 16-play drive was the game-ender. Auburn punted back to Minnesota with 8:38 left, but the Gophers drained all that time, the key play coming on fourth-and-1 at the Auburn 41 when Minnesota sent in a heavy set then had Morgan fire over the top of the Auburn defense to tight end Bryce Witham who made a flashy one-handed catch.
“Bottom line is they made the plays,” Malzahn said of Minnesota. “They made the plays to win the game when the game was on the line.”
Morgan finished with 278 passing yards, two touchdowns and an interception on 19-of-29 passing. Nix finished with 176 passing yards and a touchdown on 17-of-26 efficiency.
Nix will be back next year, and more experienced now with his freshman year behind him. The rest of the returners, too, will surely have something to have learned and taken with them after a wild nine wins and four losses this season.
Now it’s up to the Tigers to put the learning experience to good use.