Auburn defense steps up in Birmingham Bowl win over Memphis

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It was supposed to be a shootout. Could Auburn keep up with Paxton Lynch and outscore the high-powered Memphis offense?

Auburn's offense did its part, scoring 31 points. But Lynch failed to live up to the hype as the Auburn defense smothered him throughout the game. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s group pulled away in the second half, winning 31-10 in Wednesday’s Birmingham Bowl at historic Legion Field.

What this win means for Auburn: There were a lot of potential distractions for Auburn entering Wednesday’s bowl game. The Tigers had yet to hire a defensive coordinator. They hadn’t named a starting quarterback yet. And there was talk that a handful of players might leave early for the NFL. This team put all that aside and played one of its better games all season. The defense in particular, led by interim defensive coordinator Lance Thompson, was outstanding. There are still a lot of questions heading into 2016, but Auburn now has some momentum.

What this loss means for Memphis: It wasn’t the day Lynch had envisioned. With a number of NFL scouts on hand, the Memphis quarterback finished 17-of-38 for 104 yards, and for only the second time all season, he failed to throw a touchdown. There’s been no official word as to whether the junior will declare early for the NFL, but if he does, Memphis will start over next season with a new quarterback and a new head coach.

Uh, what? If this was Malzahn's plan, then more power to him. But I can’t imagine his plan was to start quarterback Sean White, let him throw two interceptions and then turn to Jeremy Johnson in the second half. With the season over, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the QB position at Auburn. White went 8-of-14 with 103 yards and the two interceptions. Meanwhile, Johnson -- who didn’t play his first snap until the third quarter -- went 1-for-1 with a touchdown and also ran for 26 yards and a score.

Unsung hero: A big reason for Lynch’s struggles was the play of Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis. The true freshman was all over the field Wednesday. He blanketed whichever receiver he was covering. He assisted on a sack in the first half. And his pass breakup early in the third quarter led to an interception in the end zone. If Memphis had scored on that drive, it would have taken the lead, and it’s a different game. Davis has been a standout for Auburn all season.

Stat of the game: Auburn running back Jovon Robinson earned MVP honors with 121 yards and a touchdown, but his backfield mate Peyton Barber became the 43rd player in Auburn history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Barber finished with 44 yards on the day.