Gophers beat Auburn 31-24 in Outback Bowl to cap 11-win season

Mohamed Ibrahim #24 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers rushes during the 2020 Outback Bowl against the Auburn Tigers at Raymond James Stadium on January 01, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. ((Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images))

A historic season for the University of Minnesota football team ended with more history as the Gophers beat Auburn 31-24 in the Outback Bowl in front of more than 45,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

Tanner Morgan threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns, and Tyler Johnson capped off a historic career with 12 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson became Minnesota’s career leader in receiving yards  (3,305) and touchdowns (33) in the game, passing Ron Johnson's 31. He was named the Outback Bowl MVP after the game.

The Gophers’ defense stood tall, limiting Auburn to 232 yards, including just 110 yards and four first downs in the first half.

Johnson scored on a 73-yard pass from Morgan with 10:26 left in regulation to give the Gophers a 31-24 lead. It ended up being the game-winner.

Minnesota finishes 11-2, its first 11-win season since 2004. It’s their first New Year’s Day bowl win since 1962.

Just a week removed from losing offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State, Matt Simon stepped in as the interim. The Gophers piled up 494 total yards, 215 on the ground, against an Auburn defense ranked 21st in total defense and 20th in rushing defense nationally.

Auburn came into the Outback Bowl having lost to three top-10 teams in Florida, Georgia and LSU, and beating Alabama 48-45 in its regular season finale. The Tigers were 13th in the country in scoring defense at allowing 18.6 points per game coming into the Outback Bowl. The Gophers put up 31 points.

“That’s a blue-blood out there that we beat. That's a heck of a football team that we just beat," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said after the win. "If you want to be a blue blood, you've got to beat blue bloods. We used to be a blue blood in the (19) 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. We want to restore that tradition."

Mo Ibrahim finished with 20 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown, including 26 yards on the final drive that put the game away. The Tigers came in averaging allowing 115.5 yards per game on the ground.

Auburn got on the board first with a field goal after a Morgan interception. Then, the Tigers took a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to take a 10-3 lead in the first quarter. The Gophers got back into the game after Auburn muffed a punt, taking advantage of the opportunity with a 14-yard touchdown from Ibrahim to tie the game 10-10.

Fleck was aggressive in key situations against Auburn, and it paid off. Facing a 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line, wildcat quarterback Seth Green faked a handoff and hit tight end Bryce Witham for a touchdown, giving Minnesota a 17-10 lead with 7:06 left in the first half.

The Tigers answered as Bo Nix hit a wide open Sal Cannella over the middle on 4th-and-5 for a 37-yard touchdown, tying the game 17-17.

The Gophers answered before the end of the first half and took the lead on one of the best catches of Johnson’s career. Morgan hit him in the back of the end zone, and he made a leaping 1-handed catch while getting one foot in bounds for the score and a 24-17 lead at the half. It's likely to be the No. 1 play on SportsCenter's Top 10.

"It feels amazing to go out here with my brothers, last collegiate game, just to do what we have. We’ve been showing it all week, the entire year really. To be able to go out there and play with them one last time, give it everything we got, it’s something that I’ll definitely remember," Johnson said.

"He’s going to leave here the greatest receiver in the history of the University of Minnesota," Fleck said.

Auburn tied it 24-24 before Morgan hit Johnson for his second score of the day, the game-winner, with 10:26 left. Minnesota got the ball back with more than eight minutes to play and finished the game with a 16-play drive to run out the clock. Facing a 4th-and-1 at the Auburn 41-yard line, Fleck went for it and Morgan hit Witham for his second catch of the day, the biggest of his career. He made a leaping 1-handed grab for 11 yards a first down, keeping the drive alive and the clock moving.

The Gophers took Auburn out of its offensive approach by controlling the line of scrimmage and the time of possession. Minnesota had the ball for more than 37 minutes, while Auburn had it for just more than 22. The Tigers came in averaging 211 rushing yards per game, but managed only 56 against the Minnesota defense. Auburn was just 3-for-11 on third down conversions.

Fleck got a well-deserved Gatorade bath from his players as time expired.

"It's a pinnacle for the year. It shows what this program is capable of doing," Fleck said.

The Gophers will now go into spring football off an 11-win season, the first time doing that in 115 years. They also won seven Big Ten games for the first time in program history.