Auburn’s first appearance at Legion Field in 17 years turned out to be a wild one.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson scored a pair of second half touchdowns in a limited backup role to power Auburn to a 31-10 win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.
The first time Johnson touched the ball Wednesday he hit Jason Smith for an 11-yard touchdown to give Auburn a 17-10 lead in the third quarter.
He extended the lead to 24-10 on his third snap under center by taking a quarterback keeper 5-yards for a score.
When Auburn coach Gus Malzahn tabbed Sean White as the starter an hour before kickoff, he promised the team had a few packages in the game plan for Johnson.
Auburn's third-year coach ended up using those packages to the offense’s advantage and making Johnson the unlikely hero.
“Coach trusted me gave me a chance, an opportunity which I knew I had my plays and packages when I was going to come in,” Johnson said. “I cherish my moment and that’s what I did. The line did a great job blocking. It was a fun day today.”
Running back Jovon Robinson, who was named the game's MVP, was also a key contributor on offense going for more than 100 yards for the second time this season. The junior college transfer provided consistency on the ground carrying the ball for an average of 4.7 yards per carry.
He finished the game with 126 yards with a touchdown.
“He did a good job out on the perimeter and got some tough yards,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “The run that stood out to me is the one from the three year line when he kind of got stuck but kept moving his feet and the offensive line drove him into the endzone. That was one of the huge plays in the game.”
The other surprising turn was the defensive coordinator-less Auburn bottling up Memphis’ high-powered offense and top NFL quarterback prospect Paxton Lynch.
Auburn wasted an early 10-0 lead thanks to a disastrous offensive stretch that included three interceptions on four drives.
Memphis safety Reggis Ball returned one of the interceptions 56-yard for a touchdown to send the teams tied 10-10 going into halftime.
The turnovers wiped away a nearly perfect first half from the defense.
With Lance Thompson calling plays, Auburn held Memphis to 92 total yards and five first downs over the first 30 minutes. Memphis only converted 3 of 10 third-down attempts and one of them was on a penalty.
For all the NFL draft hype surrounding Paxton Lynch, Auburn held the quarterback to pedestrian numbers — 16 of 37 for 108 yards — thanks in part to a consistent pass rush from the front seven.
“That was a great overall defensive performance,” Malzahn said. “We really wanted to get pressure on the quarterback and harass him. Our secondary was able to lockdown their receivers and we didn’t give them much room.”
Memphis interim coach Darrell Dickey said Auburn defended his team better than any opposing defense had in the last two years.
“We pretty much checked off everything we wanted to do,” Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said.
Lynch opened the second half by throwing an interception in the end zone to Tray Matthews.
Carlton Davis jumped in front of the intended target Mose Frazier on the play and tipped the ball to Matthews.
“I’m definitely disappointed in myself,” Lynch said. “When I go out there, I’m trying to make every play possible. I left a few throws out there today. The guys played well around me. I just didn’t put it in a good enough place for them to make plays on the ball. That’s going to happen when you have a game like today against a good defense.”
* Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy left the game in the first half with a leg injury and did not return. He returned to the sidelines after halftime time with a pair of crutches.
* Auburn’s first appearance at Legion Field in 17 years helped the Birmingham Bowl set a new attendance record. During the third quarter, bowl officials announced the new record of 59,430 fans.
* Peyton Barber became the 43rd player in Auburn history to rush for more than 1,000 yards. A 5-yard carry in the third carry helped Barber break the mark. Auburn has had at least one 1,000 rusher since 2009.