Tampa, Fla. — With the clock winding down on a dominating performance in the Outback Bowl, Minnesota fans broke into a chant of “Row The Boat, Row The Boat, Row The Boat.”
The never-give-up mantra coach P.J. Fleck used to help change the culture of Golden Gophers football continues to inspire a program determined to recapture its glory days.
“We challenged everyone of our players, you want to be a blue blood you’ve got to beat the blue bloods,” Fleck said Wednesday after No. 16 Minnesota beat No. 9 Auburn 31-24 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score.
“We used to be a blue blood back in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s,” Fleck added. “We’ve talked about the word of the year is restore. We want to restore that tradition.”
Tyler Johnson had 12 receptions for 204 yards and two touchdowns to become the Gophers’ career receiving leader and Minnesota outrushed the Tigers 215 yards to 56 while dominating time of possession to limit Auburn’s ability to keep pace.
“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 coach Gus Malzahn said.
“The second half, it was really a dog fight. Back and forth,” Malzahn added. “The bottom line is they made plays. They made the plays to win the game when the game was on the line.”
Johnson broke Eric Decker’s school record for receiving yards on his second catch of the day and became Minnesota’s all-time leader for scoring receptions on a one-handed, 2-yard TD catch that put the Gophers (11-2) up 24-17 at halftime.
The senior’s 73-yard catch-and-run put his team ahead for good early in the fourth quarter.
“Coach Fleck says all the time, that this program is going up, and as you see today it’s definitely going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “Just having the right guys in the locker room is very important and everyone buying in.”
Minnesota, which began the season with nine straight victories before losing two of its last three to Big Ten rivals Iowa and Wisconsin, finished with more than 10 wins for the first time since 1904. Auburn (9-4) concluded a season in which all four of its losses came against opponents ranked in the Top 25.
“I feel like we could’ve played harder and better than what we did. It’s just disappointing, especially going out like that in your last game,” Auburn senior defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “Even though we had a chance to win, we weren’t on our ‘A’ game. I’m just disappointed.”
Tanner Morgan completed 19 of 29 passes for 278 yards, one interception and both of the TDs to Johnson, who finished with 3,305 receiving yards and 33 TD catches in his career. Receiver Seth Green tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Witham on fourth-and-inches midway through the second quarter.
Noah Igbinoghene, whose mother and father were Olympic track and field athletes in Nigeria, returned a kickoff 96 yards for Auburn’s first touchdown. Bo Nix threw a 37-yard TD pass to Sal Cannella and JaTarvious Whitlow scored 3-yard run that made it 24-24 heading into the fourth quarter.
Morgan broke the tie with his second TD throw to Johnson, who posted the 16th 100-yard game of his career and caught at least one TD pass for the seventh straight game, tying a another school record.
The Gophers dominated on the ground, too, with Mohamed Ibrahim running for 140 yards on 20 carries.
Nix was 17 of 26 for 176 yards, one TD and no interceptions.
No. 5 Georgia 26, No. 8 Baylor 14: At New Orleans, George Pickens caught 12 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown.
Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer, coming back from a concussion in the Big 12 title game on Dec. 7, was sidelined again in the fourth quarter when the back of his head appeared to hit hard on the turf as he was taken down by two Georgia defenders along the sideline.
While Georgia’s Travon Walker was penalized for a late hit, giving the Bears a first down, the drive stalled on a sack of backup QB Jacob Zeno on fourth down with about five minutes to go and Baylor trailing by 12.
Jake Fromm completed 20 of 30 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns without an interception for Georgia (12-2), which was back in the Sugar Bowl for a second straight season, having lost to Texas last year.
Georgia was without about a dozen regulars, including three starting offensive linemen. Some players were hurt while others sat out to preserve their health for the NFL draft.
Meanwhile, top Georgia running back D’Andre Swift saw only limited action because of an ailing shoulder.
Zamir White, known for persevering through two major knee operations in recent years, carried 18 times for 92 yards and a touchdown.
Georgia defensive back Richard LeCounte intercepted two passes, the second sealing the victory in the final minutes.
Brewer completed 21 of 41 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown to Denzel Mims. Brewer was intercepted once.
After Georgia led 19-0 at halftime, Baylor (11-3) showed signs of mounting a comeback on the opening series of the second half with a scoring drive dominated by Mims. He had catches of 40 and 8 yards before his 12-yard touchdown grab trimmed the Bulldogs’ lead to 19-7. Mims also surpassed 1,000 yards receiving for the season on the drive.
The Bears quickly forced a Georgia punt and moved back across midfield when momentum suddenly swung back to the Bulldogs. Linebacker Azeez Ojulari sacked and stripped Brewer on fourth-and-4 and Walker recovered on the Baylor 47.
The Bulldogs capitalized with a touchdown drive extended by fake field goal in which holder Jake Camarda ran off tackle for 6 yards on fourth-and-2. White finished the series off with a tackle-breaking 13-yard run to the pylon.
Brewer’s short, second-effort TD run made it 26-14.
Pickens’ 46-yard catch deep down the middle on a flea flicker set up the first points of the game on Rodrigo Blankenship’s 24-yard field goal.
The Bulldogs widened the lead on Fromm’s 27-yard fade pass to the Pickens in the left side of the end zone.
Georgia made it 19-0 when Fromm, with time to survey the field behind that makeshift offensive line, threw hard over the middle for a 16-yard score to Matt Landers, the receiver’s first career TD.
Baylor threatened on just one drive in the first half, its second possession of the game. It fizzled when LeCounte made his third interception of the season on a pass tipped straight up in the air by Bears running back Trestan Ebner at the Georgia 18.