Carlton Davis (above) led Auburn in tackles vs. Memphis.
Birmingham, Ala.--No defensive coordinator, no problem.
That was the story at the Birmingham Bowl on Wednesday as the Auburn Tigers defeated Memphis 31-10 at Legion Field.
The victory improved Auburn’s record to 7-6 while Memphis finished the 2015 football season at 9-4.
In the process the Auburn defense throttled the high-powered Memphis team that was averaging 42.3 points per game. The only touchdown for the American Conference team came on an interception return.
Auburn’s defense held Memphis to a season-low 205 total yards. It was also the lowest total yards the Tigers had allowed to an opponent all year.
Asked if it was the best defensive performance in his three seasons as Auburn’s head coach, Gus Malzahn said it was.
Lance Thompson, who was given the assignment of directing the defense after Will Muschamp left to become head coach at South Carolina, had high praise for the players along with the other defensive coaches that included graduate assistant Blake Gideon handling the defensive backs, defensive analyst Travis Williams coaching the linebackers and Rodney Garner continuing in his role as the defensive line coach.
“It is a great testimony about what can happen when everybody is pulling together,” said Thompson, who will be giving up his interim defensive coordinating duties to Kevin Steele, the LSU defensive coordinator who is making the move to Auburn.
Before he did that Thompson’s bunch limited Memphis to 97 net rushing yards at 3.1 yards per carry. Memphis star Paxton Lynch completed just 16-37 passes for 108 yards with one interception and no touchdowns.
Lynch was sacked by freshman Jeff Holland while Carlton Davis and junior Montravius Adams shared the other sack.
Davis was nothing short of spectacular. The All-SEC freshman led the Tigers with six solo tackles and five assists and was in terrific in pass coverage.
“Our defensive backs did a great job of locking down their guys,” Malzahn said. “I am extremely happy for our seniors. It was great to get these guys out on a bowl win and to see the smiles on their faces--a lot of great kids. It gives us momentum for the future. You can tell that great things are ahead.”
Jovon Robinson, who was named the game MVP, rushed for 126 yards on 27 carries. As a team Auburn rushed for 256 yards and three scores at 4.6 yards per rush. The Tigers passed for 151 yards and one score.
Jovon Robinson powers into the end zone for Auburn's final touchdown.
The Tigers were able to overcome three first half interceptions thanks to a solid running game and rock solid special teams play that included a blocked field goal and a 56-yard punt return by Marcus Davis to set up a touchdown.
“I am very happy for our players,” said Malzahn. “They played very hard. Our defense was outstanding. That was a great quarterback (Lynch) with a lot of great skill guys.
“Our guys on offense, especially the guys up front, took the game over,” said Malzahn, whose team outscored Memphis 21-0 in the second half.
Memphis won the toss and Auburn took the football. The Tigers moved 72 yards on 11 plays before settling on a 20-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson. The big play was a pass by punter Kevin Phillips to Kerryon Johnson for 37 yards.
Memphis gained one first down on its opening possession before punting to Auburn, which drove 70 yards on 10 plays to score the game’s opening TD on an eight-yard run by Kerryon Johnson, who lined up as a wildcat quarterback. That put the Tigers up 10-0 at the 1:58 mark of the first quarter.
Memphis got on the scoreboard with 10:03 in the second quarter on a 53-yard field goal by Jake Elliott. That followed the first turnover of the game, a poorly thrown pass by Jason Smith on a reverse play. That came at midfield after Auburn stopped Memphis for no gain on a fourth down and two play.
Another field goal try by Elliott, from 34 yards out, was blocked by Blake Countess. However, the game went into halftime tied at 10-10 as Memphis scored on a 53-yard interception return on a fourth down and less than two play. Sean White threw the pass directly to Reggie Ball, who had a clear path to the end zone to tie the game with 3:06 before intermission.
The second half was all Auburn. The Tigers took the lead at 17-10 at the 3:12 mark in the third period on an 11-yard pass in the flat from Jeremy Johnson to Jason Smith to cap a drive that covered 44 yards in eight plays after a 28-yard punt return by Davis.
Jeremy Johnson made the score 24-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter when he scored on a first down quarterback draw play from the five to cap a drive that covered 76 yards on eight plays.
The Tigers added an insurance touchdown on a four-yard run at the 12:57 mark two plays after Davis returned a punt to the Memphis six-yard line.
“We told Marcus they rugby punted a lot and we didn’t want the ball to roll,” said special teams coach Scott Fountain. “Marcus made two big plays for us on punt returns.”
Davis was beaming after the game. “I was really excited to get the opportunity to make some plays,” he said. “I give all the credit to the guys up front who worked really hard to make it happen.”
A junior wide receiver, Davis said before the game the goal was to win for the seniors. “It was a great feeling to see all of those guys smiling,” he said. “That is what really matters the most. It was our honor to do that for them.”
Thompson said he was happy for the seniors and proud of the entire team. “They all did a great job,” the coach said. “They had a great attitude about it. We talked every day in the defensive meetings what your last game is going to be about. I am really happy for those guys. They really represented us well.”
Halftime Numbers: Although the Tigers were tied 10-10 at the break the defense had allowed Memphis just 91 yards while Auburn had 197.
Worth Noting: Peyton Barber went past the 1,000-yard mark for rushing, stretching Auburn’s streak to seven seasons with at least one player doing that.
Worth Noting, Part 2: Daniel Carlson kicked his 23rd field goal, setting a single-season Auburn record.
Stat of the Game: Memphis, one of the top passing teams in the country, averaged just 2.9 yards per pass play while completing just 16 of 37 throws.