Looking to end their best season since 1904 on a high note, the No. 18 Minnesota Golden Gophers traveled to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida and fought hard for a 31-24 win over the No. 12 Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl.
"That's a heck of a football team that our team just beat," head coach P.J. Fleck said. "They found a way to win a game when I don't think many people thought we had a chance."
After not playing since Nov. 30 in its loss to Wisconsin, Minnesota started off the game a little sluggish with a topsy-turvy first quarter, but received record-setting bowl performances from key players to guide them to victory.
"The bottom line is, they outplayed us and they out-coached us, they deserved to win today," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said.
On quarterback Tanner Morgan's first pass of the game, he threw to a heavily covered Tyler Johnson and was intercepted by Auburn cornerback Javaris Davis. He returned it all the way down to the Minnesota 12-yard line, putting Auburn in prime position to put points on the board to take the lead.
However, Minnesota's defense held its own, forcing Auburn to go three-and-out and kick a field goal.
Morgan was quick to forget his mistake on the next drive, leading the Gophers down into field goal range to put kicker freshman Michael Lantz in position to tie the game. After struggling with the kicking game all year, Lantz converted on the 40-yard attempt to tie the game at three.
It didn't last long.
On the ensuing kickoff, Auburn kick returner junior Noah Igbinoghene caught the kick and never looked back, taking it 96 yards down the field, nearly untouched, for a touchdown.
Auburn appeared ready to put their foot on the gas pedal and control the game midway through the first quarter as the Tigers forced Minnesota's offense to go three-and-out and Auburn was primed to return the kick near midfield.
That's when the game turned on its head. Gophers punter Jacob Herbers punted the ball away to Auburn and punt returner Christian Tutt misread the kick and fumbled it away. Minnesota linebacker Thomas Barber, playing in his last game in a Gophers uniform, came up with the fumble at the Auburn 40-yard line.
Minnesota would go on to score the next 14 points to take the lead. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim capped the next drive off with a 16-yard rushing touchdown to tie the game. Ibrahim finished the first half with nine rushes for 90 yards and a touchdown.
Both teams traded punts in the second quarter until Minnesota drove 92 yards down the field to score a touchdown. Wildcat quarterback Seth Green converted on fourth-and-one from the goal line by throwing a lob pass over an Auburn defender to tight end Bryce Witham for a touchdown. That was Green's first throw and Witham's first catch of the year which put Minnesota up 17-10.
"Seth put it up for me and we were just able to execute it," Witham said about the touchdown catch.
Auburn tied the game up on its next possession when quarterback Bo Nix completed a fourth-and-five pass from the Minnesota 37-yard line to wide receiver Sal Cannella who was wide open in the middle of the field, walking into the end zone to tie the game.
With Auburn receiving the ball after the half, Minnesota looked to take the lead heading into halftime. Not unexpectedly, 40 of the 75 yards on the possession were receiving yards by star wide receiver Tyler Johnson. He capped the drive off with a two-yard touchdown grab in the back of the end zone, high-pointing the ball and keeping his feet in bounds to give Minnesota a 24-17 lead going into the half.
"I was hoping I landed in bounds," Johnson said about the touchdown grab. "I knew that I needed to just go up and make a play."
Midway through the third quarter, the Tigers went 86 yards while taking over five minutes off the clock for a touchdown. Running back JaTarvious Whitlow rumbled into the end zone from the Minnesota three-yard line to bring the game to a tie once again.
After failing to convert a fourth down in Auburn territory to begin the fourth quarter, the Minnesota defense stepped up. They forced a three-and-out from Auburn, resulting in a punt., Then, on the first play after the punt, Morgan found Johnson on a 73-yard bomb for a touchdown to give the Gophers a 31-24 lead.
"Coach Simon saw something that he liked," Johnson said. "Basically the offensive line it was on them to give Tanner some time back there, they did their job with that. It was on me to create separation and then the rest is history."
With 12 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns, Johnson broke the Gophers’ bowl game record for most receiving yards and receptions and set a career-high for receiving yards in a game. After the game, Johnson was awarded the Outback Bowl MVP.
"I'm going to miss him, our team's going to miss him but he's just a phenomenal guy. I'm grateful I played with him for 3 years," Morgan said.
Not only did he have the best bowl game performance for a Gophers wide receiver and arguably the best game of his career, Johnson passed the Gophers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, Eric Decker, and finished his career with 33 touchdowns, passing Ron Johnson for most in program history.
"He's going to leave here the greatest receiver in the history of Minnesota," said Fleck. "That's no disrespect to Ron Johnson. I think Ron (Johnson) would back me up, I think Eric Decker would back me up. He joins that list. I think he's proven whether it's touchdowns or yards or catches that he's the ultimate wide receiver here.
From there, the Gophers defense forced another punt and the offense never gave it back, running eight minutes off the clock to win the game as Mohamed Ibrahim ran for multiple first downs to to end the game. Ibrahim set the record for most rushing yards in a bowl game for Minnesota, finishing the game with 20 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown.
"215 yards rushing against our defense, that surprised me," Malzahn said. "They got after us up front."
The Gophers finish with an 11-2 record on the season and win the Outback Bowl, where they were heavy underdogs against a vaunted SEC opponent whose three losses were to top-15 ranked teams in the country.
After the game in Fleck's postgame press conference, he had one thing he wanted to say to the Minnesota fans.
"This is what it's all about, this is for you," Fleck said.