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Minnesota Football vs Auburn: The Elite, The Meh, and The Ugly

The Gophers put an exclamation point on the end of a great season

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Minnesota vs Auburn Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers notched their fourth consecutive bowl victory with a 31-24 Outback Bowl win over the No. 12-ranked Auburn Tigers on New Year’s Day, securing the program’s first 11-win season in 116 years.

You could not have asked for a better start to 2020!

The Elite

Tyler Johnson. You could not have written a more perfect ending. The Minnesota native was named Outback Bowl MVP after recording 12 receptions, 204 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. His first touchdown was a ridiculous catch in the back of the end zone to give the Gophers the lead before halftime. That touchdown catch also placed Johnson atop the program leaderboard for career receiving touchdowns. Earlier in the game, Johnson had broken the program record for career receiving yards. His second touchdown was a game-winning 73-yard reception that saw Johnson leave Auburn safety Smoke Monday in his dust. It was a storybook ending for one of the program’s all-time greats. We’ll see you on Sundays, Tyler.

Bryce Witham. With top tight end Jake Paulson sidelined, if you had told me that it would be Bryce Witham — and not Ko Kieft or Brevyn Spann-Ford — who would be a difference maker in the game, I’d have said you shouldn’t drink so early in the day. But it was in fact the redshirt junior who became the game’s unsung hero, first with a go-ahead touchdown catch on fourth down in the second quarter. Minnesota would turn to him again on fourth down in the fourth quarter, as Tanner Morgan lofted a desperate pass to Witham that the tight end managed to haul in with one hand. The catch gave the Gophers a fresh set of downs to run out the clock.

Mohamed Ibrahim and the Minnesota Movers. Coming into the game, I had serious doubts as to whether the Gophers’ offensive line could handle the Tigers’ formidable defensive front, especially with starting right tackle Daniel Faalele expected to be out. Well, the Minnesota Movers were up to the challenge, paving the way for 215 rushing yards against the 20th-ranked rushing defense in the country. Redshirt sophomore running back Mohamed Ibrahim certainly benefited, rushing for 140 yards on 20 carries and one touchdown. He did his part to punish the Tigers’ defensive front, breaking tackles and churning out yards after contact.

The Gophers’ final drive of the game. Clinging to a 31-24 lead, Minnesota took over on offense with 8:38 left on the clock in the fourth quarter. Auburn never had another chance to tie the game, because the Gophers held on to the ball for the remaining eight minutes and 38 seconds, grinding out 68 yards on 16 plays to run out the clock. What a flex.

Interim offensive coordinator Matt Simon. Consider what the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator was able to accomplish against Auburn after getting the interim tag when Kirk Ciarrocca departed for Penn State a week ago. With Simon calling plays, the Gopher offense put up 31 points, 215 rushing yards, and 279 passing yards against a Tiger defense that came into the game allowing an average of 18.6 points, 115.5 rushing yards, and 208.4 passing yards per game. I don’t know if he’ll get the permanent promotion to offensive coordinator, but if the Outback Bowl was supposed to be his audition, I’d have to say he nailed it.

The Gopher defense. Minnesota’s offense lit up the scoreboard, but the defense took care of business on their side of the ball, as well. Joe Rossi’s unit stifled one of the best rushing attacks in the country, limiting the Tigers to 56 rushing yards, which is well below their season average of 211 rushing yards per game. And they were able to do so without starting linebacker Kamal Martin. The Gophers were also able to hold Auburn to 24 points and 176 passing yards, below their averages of 34 points per game and 210 passing yards per game. When you consider that one of the Tigers’ touchdowns came on special teams, the performance looks even more impressive.

All of the Gopher fans who made the trip to Tampa. Head coach P.J. Fleck said in his postgame press conference that the Outback Bowl “felt like a home game” because of all of the fans in the stands decked out in maroon and gold. They certainly made their presence known throughout the game, as it was abundantly clear from the television broadcast that the Minnesota contingent was much more vocal than their counterparts from Auburn.

The Meh

Tanner Morgan. By his own standard, the redshirt sophomore quarterback had a bit of a rough game. He has to get better at identifying linebackers drifting into coverage, as that has been an Achilles’ heel for Morgan all season long and even reared its head on the Gophers’ first drive of the game with the interception. He was generally hit-or-miss under pressure, as the offensive line protected him well for the most part but didn’t win every battle against a tough Tiger pass rush. But Morgan did throw for 278 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner. It was a solid if unspectacular finish to a stellar season for the Gophers’ quarterback.

The Ugly

Special teams. I’m not going to advocate for special teams coach Rob Wenger to be fired, but I think he needs to take a long look in the mirror this offseason. Special teams have been a liability for the Gophers all season long. I can understand the struggles of a true freshman starting kicker, but kick coverage comes down to coaching. Surrendering a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to Auburn after tying the game is the kind of momentum swing that can spell doom for the team on the wrong end of it. Something needs to change, because the special team woes cannot continue.