Birmingham Bowl: Auburn 31, Memphis 10

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A Memphis season that began with a record-setting eight-game winning streak and rise to a ranking of 15th in the country came to a close with a thud this afternoon at Legion Field in Birmingham. Jeremy Johnson relieved an ineffective Sean White at quarterback for Auburn and tossed the go-ahead touchdown pass to Jason Smith with 3:12 to play in the third quarter. Johnson carried the ball himself for a five-yard score on Auburn's next possession to put the game out of reach on a day the Memphis offense had no fuel.

Auburn essentially doubled the U of M's output, gaining 403 yards to the blue-clad Tigers' 203. Jovon Robinson rushed for 122 yards to lead the winners' attack.
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Auburn completes the season with a record of 7-6, while Memphis ends with a mark of 9-4. The U of M has not beaten an SEC team besides Ole Miss since upsetting Tennessee in 1996. The Memphis loss drops the American Athletic Conference to 1-6 in bowl play this month. (Houston will play Florida State Friday in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.)

Offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey fulfilled his one-game duty as interim coach while the U of M's newly hired Mike Norvell watched from the coaches box. (Norvell was hired on December 4th to succeed Justin Fuente, who departed for Virginia Tech.) There was some question about how Memphis would perform without Fuente on the sideline, but no question about the team's chances should junior quarterback Paxton Lynch not play to the standards that have him projected by many as a first-round pick in next April's NFL draft. Lynch was unable to solve the Auburn defense, completing only 16 of 37 passes (106 yards) and tossing an interception in the end zone on the U of M's opening drive of the second half, when the score was knotted at 10.

The highlight of the game for Memphis was an interception returned 52 yards for a touchdown by free safety Reggis Ball to tie the score in the second quarter. The play — Ball's second interception of the game — occurred shortly after second-team All-America kicker Jake Elliott had a field-goal attempt blocked. Elliott connected on a 53-yarder earlier in the game, tying the Memphis record for field goals in a season with 23.

The loss puts a bow on the four-year Fuente era, with 19 wins over the last two seasons the highest two-year total in the history of the program. Lynch has likely played his last college game, as have the likes of Ball, tight end Alan Cross, receiver Mose Frazier, and linebacker Leonard Pegues. Norvell will be tasked with a new challenge for the Memphis football program: living up to the standard of his predecessor.


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