Johnson lifts Auburn past Memphis 31-10 in Birmingham Bowl
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) Jeremy Johnson and Auburn found a measure of redemption and, finally, something to celebrate in their season finale.
The Tigers' former starting quarterback came off the bench to run and pass for touchdowns and the similarly maligned defense contained Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch throughout in Auburn's 31-10 victory Wednesday in the Birmingham Bowl.
Johnson capped a disappointing season by sparking a sputtering offense that scored three touchdowns in a five-minute span starting late in the third quarter. Auburn (7-6) avoided the first losing season of Gus Malzahn's 11-year college coaching career.
''We knew we had to start scoring touchdowns because we knew what kind of offense they were, even though the (Auburn) defense was playing great,'' Johnson said. ''In our mind, we were just thinking about getting in the end zone.''
He helped get them there a few times.
An Auburn defense without a coordinator didn't allow an offensive touchdown for Memphis (9-4) and its star quarterback. Malzahn announced the hiring of LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele after the game.
''Offensively, we never established any consistency or got anything going,'' interim Memphis coach Darrell Dickey said. ''Their defense, to be quite honest, defended us better than anybody's defended us in the last two years.''
Johnson gave Auburn a 17-10 lead with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jason Smith. He ran 17 yards on his second play from scrimmage and opened the fourth quarter with a 5-yard touchdown run on his third.
Marcus Davis set up two of the touchdowns with punt returns of 28 and 56 yards.
Lynch could never get untracked in what might be the final college game for the projected top-five NFL draft pick. Afterward, the junior said he would talk with his family and coaches before making a decision on whether to return or enter the draft.
Game MVP Jovon Robinson, who is from Memphis, effectively put the game away with a 4-yard touchdown set up by Davis' 56-yard return down to the 6 early in the fourth. He finished with 126 yards on 27 carries and also smashed his way to a fourth-down conversion to set up Johnson's touchdown pass.
''This game is special because it's personal,'' Robinson said. ''I knew a lot of guys that play for Memphis.''
Lynch never got going and Memphis was running the ball down three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
He finished 16-of-37 passing for 108 yards - his lowest total since the opener against Missouri State - with an interception in the end zone off a deflected pass. Memphis had been gunning for a program first: back-to-back 10-win seasons.
''I'm definitely disappointed in myself,'' Lynch said. ''When I go out there, I'm trying to make every play possible, and I know I left a few throws out there today.''
Memphis had halted a three-game losing streak after briefly climbing into the playoff conversation with a 63-0 romp over SMU in the regular-season finale when Lynch fired seven first-half touchdown passes.
The only Memphis points in this one came on Reggis Ball's interception return and Jake Elliott's 53-yard field goal.
''That was great overall defense,'' Malzahn said. ''We really wanted to put pressure on the quarterback. We harassed him a lot. Our secondary just really locked down the receivers, didn't give them much room.''
Auburn outgained Memphis 402-205 in total yards in the first game since defensive coordinator Will Muschamp left to become South Carolina's head coach. A defense that struggled much of the season played perhaps its best game.
Malzahn announced before the game that Sean White, not Johnson, would start the game. White threw two interceptions, and Ball returned the second 53 yards for touchdown to tie it at 10 late in the first half.
Johnson made his snaps count, including a handoff for Robinson's fourth-quarter touchdown. He opened the season as a potential Heisman Trophy contender, was benched and reclaimed the job when White sustained a knee injury. He ran for 26 yards on three carries but only attempted one pass.
''He handled himself like a champ,'' Malzahn said. ''When he went into the game, it gave us great momentum. ''
White was 8 of 13 for 103 yards.
Memphis had three interceptions in the first half to wipe out a 10-0 deficit and forge a halftime tie.
Elliott's field goal came after Smith was picked off on a trick play. Then Ball swiped White's fourth-down pass in the backfield with nothing but green in front of him.