TAMPA, Fla. — Auburn didn't suffer from a lack of motivation going into the Outback Bowl.
Every practice the team had in Tampa, Fla., was good. "Really good," linebacker K.J. Britt said. Every senior played, even potential top-10 NFL draft pick Derrick Brown. The Tigers said they were treating this like a "business trip." They were dead set on reaching the 10-win mark, which is something that has been done only 10 times before in program history.
But No. 12 Auburn did not get there. No. 18 Minnesota won 31-24 at Raymond James Stadium.
For the fifth time in Gus Malzahn's seven seasons as the head coach, the Tigers will go into the offseason on the heels of a loss.
"I got to give them credit," Malzahn said of Minnesota. "I'm really disappointed that we couldn't send our seniors out (with a win). Bottom line is they outplayed us and out-coached us. They deserved to win today. That's just really the facts of the matter."
Here are three takeaways:
1. Auburn played a bad game on offense.
The Tigers had scored fewer than 24 points before this season (three times, in losses to Florida, LSU and Georgia), but Wednesday's game felt as if it was as bad as, if not worse than, any game they have played on offense this season.
For starters, only 17 of their 24 points were scored by the offense, and three of those — which came on a first-drive Anders Carlson field goal — came after Javaris Davis returned an interception to just outside the 10-yard line.
Auburn finished the game with only 232 total yards, which is the offense's worst performance since a Sept. 22 win over Arkansas last season and fifth-worst during Malzahn's seven-year tenure as head coach.
The Tigers tied the game, 24-24, with 5:04 remaining in the third quarter after a 13-play, 86-yard drive capped by a 3-yard JaTarvious Whitlow run, but it gained only 47 yards on 15 plays over the final three drives, with the first one ending in a failed fake punt and the next two with punts.
That scoring drive was one of only two Auburn had that gained more than 30 yards, with the other also ending in a touchdown — a 37-yard pass from Bo Nix to Sal Cannella in the first half.
Minnesota, meanwhile, was able to possess the ball for the final 8:38 of the game on offense. The winners finished the game having run 75 plays in 37:35 minutes of possession, whereas the losers ran just 53 plays in 22:25.
"They did a really good job of keeping the ball away from us. They stayed on the field," Malzahn said. "They kept the ball, waited until the play clock had about five seconds or less on it. They shortened the game. They had an excellent game plan. They were able to execute."
2. Minnesota dominated the line of scrimmage.
Football is a line of scrimmage game, and the Golden Gophers won both sides of that battle Wednesday, even in a game where Brown and fellow standout defensive line stalwart Marlon Davidson both played.
Minnesota gashed the Tigers on the ground, running for 215 yards and a touchdown, which is the third-most Kevin Steele's unit has allowed this season. Mohamed Ibrahim rank 20 times for 140 yards and a touchdown, and Rodney Smith added 69 yards on 16 carries.
"That surprised me," Malzahn said. "They got after us up front. I mean, that's just the facts of the matter."
Auburn had only 5 rushing yards at halftime and finished the game with just 56, which is the team's lowest total since it mustered 19 in a win over Texas A&M on Nov. 3, 2018.
“It’s disappointing," senior right tackle Jack Driscoll said. "We came to win, but just didn’t execute well enough on offense or defense. Credit to them. They are a great team and played really hard. They have a lot of talent and a great coach. We didn’t play well enough to win.
"For the seniors it’s hard because you knock off Alabama at the end of the year in that fashion and it’s such a euphoric high. Going forward it was about winning 10 games, something we preached upon from the beginning of the year. When you go out and don’t play well it’s frustrating for everyone involved.”
3. Special teams giveth, special teams taketh away.
Auburn's first touchdown of the game Saturday came on a 96-yard kickoff return from Noah Igbinoghene, which was the Tigers' first since the junior cornerback ran one back from the same distance in a win over Arkansas last season. It was also the first in Outback Bowl history.
“We were working on it all week," Igbinoghene said. "Didn’t really get the chance to get one a lot this year just because of the rules like the fair catch rule and stuff like that. We went in today, we talked about scoring, and that’s exactly what we did. It’s all about the other guys. I just ran, because that’s what I do. It was a surreal moment, for real.”
But, the Tigers did not win the special teams battle Wednesday.
The defense forced a punt on Minnesota's ensuing drive, but nickel back Christian Tutt attempted a diving catch on the short kick and muffed it. The Golden Gophers recovered the loose ball and scored the game-tying touchdown three plays later.
That was the first quarter. In the third, with the game tied at 24, Auburn ran a fake punt with Arryn Siposs, who caught a high snap on fourth-and-8 from near midfield and tried to throw downfield to John Samuel Shenker. But the receiver was covered and the pass was overthrown.
Minnesota struck for the game-winning score two drives later.
"It wasn't really open, but the guy had his arms around the guy when the ball is in the air. I don't know. They didn't call it. That's just part of it," Malzahn said. "We're trying to be aggressive. It could have easily been called interference, too. We would have had first down in field goal range."
Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale.