TAMPA ― In a symbolic ode to their coach’s mantra that many love to lampoon, a few Minnesota players stormed from the Raymond James Stadium southwest tunnel Wednesday brandishing oars.
Of course, this P.J. Fleck team ― like its predecessors ― has long since proven the substance of the “Row the Boat” slogan transcends such props. On a clear, bright New Year’s afternoon, it offered even more proof.
The Gophers took those proverbial paddles and kept whipping the collegiate expanse into a froth.
“We challenged every one of our players before, if you want to be a blue blood, you’ve got to beat blue bloods,” Fleck said.
Behind Outback Bowl MVP Tyler Johnson and interim offensive coordinator Matt Simon, No. 16 Minnesota amassed 494 yards and controlled the ball more than 37 minutes in a convincing 31-24 victory against No. 9 Auburn (9-4) before an announced crowd of 45,652.
“The bottom line is, they outplayed us and they out-coached us, and they deserved to win today,” said Tigers coach Gus Malzahn, whose team was a month removed from its epic 48-45 win against Alabama. “That’s just really the facts of the matter.”
With the victory, Minnesota (11-2) clinched its first 11-win season since 1904, and is assured of its first appearance in the final Associated Press rankings since 2003.
A 2020 preseason ranking also seems a lock. Only six Gophers starters Wednesday were seniors.
“There are five four-star kids on our football team,” said Fleck, who has led the Gophers to 18 total wins over the past two seasons. “Everybody else is three- and two-star kids. They have five-star hearts and just love the game of football and play so hard.”
Epitomizing the group Wednesday was Johnson, a three-star prospect (per 247Sports) from Minneapolis’ North High who ends his career as the program’s all-time leader in receiving yards (3,305) and touchdown catches (33).
Johnson tied an Outback record with 12 receptions, and his 204 yards were one shy of the bowl record set by Georgia’s Tavares King in 2012.
On his first TD, he snagged a high 2-yard throw from Tanner Morgan with one hand and managed to keep a foot inbounds in the back of the end zone, giving Minnesota a 24-17 lead 32 seconds before halftime.
“I was hoping I landed inbounds,” Johnson said. “I knew that I just needed to go up and make the play. Hat’s off to coach Simon for calling that play.”
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Then with 10:26 to play, he darted past the Auburn secondary on a simple post for a 73-yarder for the game’s final score. “He’s gonna leave here the greatest receiver in the history of Minnesota,” Fleck said.
“And I think this shows when young people make really smart decisions; well thought-out, educated decisions of when to come back, this is an example.”
Meantime, Simon, promoted to play-caller when offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca recently bolted for Penn State, essentially played keep-away from the Tigers, whose total yardage (232) and time of possession (22:25) both were season-lows.
Redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim’s 140 rushing yards on 20 carries maximized the Gophers’ RPO-based proficiency and help the Gophers control the ball for 37 minutes, 35 seconds.
But Simon’s shining moment came on Minnesota’s final drive ― spanning 16 plays ― to run out the clock. In lieu of a sneak up the gut on fourth-and-1 at Auburn’s 41, he called a pop pass over the middle to tight end Bryce Witham.
Pressured heavily on the pass, Morgan got a lot of air under his throw, but Witham snagged it with one hand for an 11-yard gain to virtually seal things.
“I didn’t question him on it, but I did ask him one more time, ‘Is this what you want to run?’” Fleck said. “He said, ‘Absolutely, Coach.’ … It was a great call. It was the necessary call.”
Moments later, a jubilant chorus of “Row the Boat” was emanating from the Gophers throng on the stadium’s west side.
“They found a way to win a game and I don’t think many people thought we had a chance,” Fleck said. “That just shows the resolve, the resiliency of this program, and these kids who have been through so much.”
Joey Knight’s takeaways
• Entering the Outback Bowl, Auburn had won its past 21 games (including 19 under Gus Malzahn) when it scored a non-offense touchdown. That streak ended Wednesday after junior Noah Igbinoghene scored the Tigers’ first TD on a 96-yard kick return, tying the Outback record.
• Minnesota’s steady double-teaming of likely top-five overall draft pick Derrick Brown not only neutralized the Tigers senior (five tackles) most of the day, but allowed the Gophers to run for 215 yards. “That’s what smart coaches do,” Malzahn said.
• Tough finding a rhythm when you can’t convert on third down, which explains why Auburn (3-for-11) struggled to get in sync all afternoon. The Tigers’ 232 total yards and 56 rushing yards were season lows.