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Zulgad: Final act is an impressive one: Gophers again show resiliency in win over favored Auburn

The Gophers football faithful would have been less than truthful if they didn’t admit that there was some doubt created as they watched the Wisconsin Badgers cruise to a 21-point victory over their team on Nov. 30 at TCF Bank Stadium.

The highpoint of the Gophers’ season had come a few weeks earlier when they held on to beat Penn State by five to improve to 9-0 and remain part of the College Football Playoff discussion. That was followed by a four-point loss at Iowa, an easy win over Northwestern and then the biggest moment of the season. With a chance to win the Big Ten West title and advance to the conference championship game, and likely a trip to the Rose Bowl, coach P.J. Fleck and his team were taught a lesson about how to win a big game by Wisconsin and coach Paul Chryst.

That defeat resulted in the Gophers being invited to the Outback Bowl to play 12th-ranked Auburn from the SEC. Auburn entered with one fewer victory than the Gophers, but was coming off a 48-45 win over Alabama in the Iron Bowl. All three of its losses had come against Top 10 teams.

The feeling among some was this was more than the Gophers wanted to bite off. A meeting with a weaker opponent, such as Tennessee, would have been a good way for the Gophers to get an easy victory and end the season feeling good about themselves.

Nonsense, was the response from this corner. One thing that had been noticeable about Fleck’s team in his third season as coach was its resiliency. Facing a quality program like Auburn, provided a very good opportunity to show that resiliency once last time in 2019.

How would the Gophers respond to that loss to the Badgers? How would they respond to losing Fleck’s longtime assistant, offensvie coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, to Penn State only days before the bowl game? And maybe, most importantly, how would the Gophers do against another top-level team that many thought would owerpower them?

The answer was provided late Wednesday afternoon as Fleck was doused with some type of athletic drink on the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. The 18th-ranked Gophers (11-2) had opened as eight-point underdogs but come away with a 31-24 victory that was no fluke.

There were moments early in the game where you were waiting for Auburn to make it clear this was going to be a mismatch. That maybe the Gophers had beaten up on bad Big Ten opponents and simply couldn’t compete with top teams. That the Penn State win was more fluke than fact.

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan had attempted to hit Tyler Johnson on a slant route on the third play from scrimmage but instead threw it to Auburn’s Javaris Davis. Davis returned it to the Gophers 12-yard line but Auburn went three-and-out and only got a field goal. The Gophers responded with a drive that ended with a field goal to tie the score.

Then came more adversity as Auburn got a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Morgan interception, that kickoff return for a touchdown, all were shots to the chin that could have staggered the Gophers badly. That didn’t happen. The Gophers led 24-17 at halftime and the score was tied 24-24 after three quarters.

The Gophers got the ball the back with 10 minutes, 37 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and on the opening play of the drive Morgan faked a handoff to Rodney Smith before hitting a wide open Tyler Johnson for a 73-yard touchdown.

That was Johnson’s second touchdown reception of the game, the first being this incredible catch.

On their final drive, Fleck decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 and Morgan connected on an 11-yard pass on which Bryce Witham made an outstanding catch. It was the Gophers who were throwing haymakers and Auburn that was staggered.

Johnson finished with 12 receptions for 204 yards; Morgan completed 19 of 29 passes for 278 yards with two touchdowns and the interception; running back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 140 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown; the Gophers outgained Auburn 494 yards to 232 yards; and held a time of possession advantage of 37 minutes, 35 seconds to 22:25.

This came against an Auburn team that was 13th nationally, and third in the SEC, in scoring defense at 18.6 points per game. The Gophers held Auburn quarterback Bo Nix to 17 of 26 for 176 yards with a touchdown and was sacked twice.

“They outplayed us and outcoached us,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told reporters. “They deserved to win.”

The resilient Gophers had taken an important step toward erasing the memory of that loss to Wisconsin and left little doubt that while there might be bumps in the road this program remains headed in the right direction.


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