Tampa, FL – There were some early fireworks from No. 12 Auburn in the 2020 Outback Bowl, but it wouldn’t be enough as the Tigers’ bid for 10 wins fell short with a 31-24 loss to No. 18 Minnesota on Wednesday.
“Bottom line is they made plays,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “They made the plays to win the game when the game was on the line, so you have to give them credit. We didn’t overlook them. I think our guys were ready to play. I think our guys played hard. But they made the plays. We didn’t.”
Auburn started the game on defense where linebacker K.J. Britt made a tackle for loss on the opening play, and then three plays later, senior cornerback Javaris Davis intercepted Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and returned it 23 yards to the Gophers’ 17-yard line.
The turnover led to three points as Anders Carlson drilled a 24-yard field goal to give the Tigers the early 3-0 advantage.
After Minnesota tied the game with a field goal, Auburn answered immediately with another big play. This time, it was on special teams as Noah Igbinoghene returned the kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. The junior cornerback found a seam thanks to a block from teammate Matthew Hill, and once he found daylight, there was nobody catching him.
It’s the first kickoff return for a touchdown by Auburn since a 96-yard return by Igbinoghene in 2018 against Arkansas, and it’s the first in Auburn bowl history. It also matched the longest kickoff return for a touchdown in Outback Bowl history.
Minnesota scored the next 14 points to take its first lead of the game, but the lead didn’t last long. Auburn’s offense put together a 7-play, 64-yard drive capped by a 37-yard touchdown pass from Bo Nix to Sal Cannella on a critical 4th-and-5 play.
Nix, the SEC Freshman of the Year, escaped to his right and found Cannella wide open in the middle of the field. It was a career-long reception for Cannella and his second score of the season. It was the 16th touchdown pass of the season for Nix, who added to his freshman school records with 17 completions for 176 yards and the lone score Wednesday.
Minnesota reclaimed the lead with another touchdown drive before the half and took a 24-17 lead into the locker room at the intermission.
In the second half, Auburn struck first with another long scoring drive midway through the third quarter and tied the game when sophomore running back JaTarvious Whitlow leaped into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown run. The Tigers went 86 yards on 13 plays, and the touchdown from Whitlow was his 10th of the season on the ground.
The Auburn defense responded with a three-and-out on the next drive and then made a critical fourth-down stop early in the fourth quarter to keep the score even.
Minnesota would finally break through with 10:26 left when Morgan connected with Tyler Johnson for 73 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. Johnson finished with 12 receptions for 204 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors.
Defensively, Jeremiah Dinson led the Tigers with nine tackles. The safety was part of a senior class at Auburn that all opted to play in the bowl game and finish their careers together. The group also included Derrick Brown, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and Marlon Davidson, a First-Team All-SEC selection.
Brown recorded five tackles in what was his final game wearing an Auburn uniform.
“I really appreciate our seniors,” Malzhan said. “They just did an outstanding job their whole career. I’m disappointed for them that we couldn’t get them out with a victory. They led us today and played extremely hard.”
Highlighted by wins over Alabama and Oregon, Auburn finished the season at 9-4. All four losses came to teams ranked in the top 20 of the College Football Playoff rankings.