Auburn’s defense disappointed and underwhelmed for most of the 2015 season, but it was that unit that played a pivotal role in sending the Tigers into the offseason on a high note.
Facing one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country, Auburn (7-6) almost completely shut down Paxton Lynch in claiming a 31-10 win over Memphis (9-4) in the Birmingham Bowl Wednesday afternoon. The win snapped a mini two-game bowl losing streak for the SEC Tigers and gave them their first postseason win since the Chick-fil-A Bowl following the 2011 season.
Lynch, projected by many observers to be the first quarterback selected in the next NFL draft if he leaves the Tigers early as expected, came into the game in the top 15 nationally in both passing yards and passing touchdowns; against AU, Lynch completed just 17-of-38 passes for 104 yards, zero touchdowns and a critical end-zone interception early in the third quarter on a drive that could’ve given the Tigers their first lead of the game. Shut out of a touchdown or even a field goal on that drive, the U of M watched as AU scored on three straight possessions to break open what had been a tie ballgame.
The passing yards by Lynch were his worst against an FBS team this season, with the previous low of 156 coming in a loss to Temple Nov. 21. The junior had thrown for more than 300 yards in eight games this season — AU came into the game 73rd in pass defense, giving up an average of 232.2 yards per game — and topped 400 yards twice. What might most alarm NFL scouts is the fact that Lynch completed just 44.7 percent of his passes on the day. His previous low was 61.9, and he had a completion percentage of exactly 69 in the regular season. The SEC Tigers had allowed quarterbacks to complete 62 percent of their passes the first 12 games of the season.
AU managed a double-digit win despite losing the turnover battle 3-1. The U of M converted the three turnovers — a trio of interceptions — into 10 points, seven coming on a pick-six by Reggis Ball. Ball, incidentally, had two of the interceptions for the Tigers, his team-leading fourth and fifth on the season. All of those turnovers came in the first half, but AU managed to head into the locker room knotted up at 10-all.
Auburn, despite the score, didn’t put up a pile of yards, although they did outgain their football feline counterparts 403-206. A big reason for that, though, was Marcus Davis giving them a shortish field on a handful of occasions, averaging 15.5 yards on six punt returns.
Jovon Robinson did top the 100-yard mark for the SEC Tigers, leading all rushers with 121 yards. Peyton Barber, meanwhile, rushed for 44, pushing him over 1,000 yards on the year (1,020) and giving AU back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers.
While the win gives Auburn some much-needed momentum heading into what will be a pivotal — and perhaps final — offseason for Gus Malzahn on The Plains, the loss for Memphis was one final punch in the gut in a season that began with much promise.
The Tigers started 2015 by ripping off eight straight wins, with a 13-point triumph over Ole Miss — one month after the Rebels beat Alabama — bringing the word “playoff” into the conversation for the U of M. However, the Tigers lost their first three games in the month of November to not only extinguish any playoff talk, but also put the kibosh on an expected New Year’s Six bid.
Add in the fact that they lost their head coach, Justin Fuente, to Virginia Tech, and 2015 will end on a decidedly down note for the AAC program.