Gus Malzahn and Auburn celebrate their Birmingham Bowl win
By Charles Goldberg
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ― Coach Gus Malzahn said he found what he wanted in the Birmingham Bowl on Wednesday, thanks to a victory in what perhaps was Auburn's best performance of the season.
The Tigers closed out the season with a 31-10 win over Memphis to finish with a 7-6 record, the happy result of their perseverance after an uneven regular season.
Malzahn said the victory will give Auburn momentum going into next season and allowed the Tigers to get its "confidence back."
"Our team has been close. We've had some tough losses," he said. "The thing that stood out for me about this team is they stuck together. There wasn't one time where people would say, 'Oh, they didn't play hard. They quit.' No, they didn't quit. They played their tail off. The future is very bright. I think you can see that today with the momentum we have for next year."
Malzahn liked these things: Auburn's defense allowed just three points, quarterback Jeremy Johnson came off the bench for two important second-half touchdowns, Peyton Barber crossed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season and Jovon Robinson was named the game's MVP after rushing for 126 yards.
The win also allowed 17 seniors to end their careers with a win, something Malzahn and their teammates had talked about before the game.
"I'm extremely happy for our seniors. It was great to see the smiles of their face. It gives us momentum for the future," he said.
The game story.
Kevin Steele hired a new defensive coordinator.
Malzahn didn't stop with the seniors. Everybody, he said, did well.
"I'm really happy for our players. They played very well. They played extremely hard," Malzahn said.
Auburn dominated the scoreboard and the stat sheet, gaining 402 yards to Memphis' 205. Memphis finished with a modest 13 first downs, two of those on penalties.
"Their defense," said Memphis interim head coach Darrell Dickey, "defended us better than anyone has in the last two years.
"Quite frankly, they played better than we did in all three areas of the game. Their offense was better than ours today, their defense was better than ours today, and their special teams were better than ours today."
Malzahn announced after the game he had hired Kevin Steele away from LSU to become his new defensive coordinator. Auburn's defense played well before the announcement.
"Our defense was outstanding," he said.
"Our offense in the second half, especially up front, took the game over" in the second half, he said.
Malzahn was asked about a conversation he had with Johnson after the game.
"Everything that this team has gone through this year, and just to see the smile on their faces, it's a real special feeling to have those individual moments with him that only a player and a coach can kind of understand," Malzahn said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine