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BIRMINGHAM — Auburn's Birmingham Bowl appearance was a chance to win in front of a pseudo-home crowd and end a four-game losing streak, bringing momentum into the offseason.
Instead, 2021 ends in more bitter defeat.
Auburn rallied from down 10 points but lost 17-13 on a late touchdown against No. 21 Houston on Tuesday. Bryan Harsin's first season as Auburn coach ends 6-7 after the Tigers were ranked in the top 15. It's the program's first losing season since 2012.
Harsin's play-calling had personnel in mind, until the end
With Harsin calling plays for the first time, Auburn was hesitant to run between the tackles — a product of the depleted offensive line, which had a backup center and right tackle. On a red-zone third-and-2 in the first half, running back Tank Bigsby was stuffed up the middle. A third-and-1 quarterback sneak in the third quarter went nowhere. Harsin adjusted and called more plays to the outside.
He still wanted to find ways to get the ball to Bigsby, his best play-maker, after just eight carries for the running back in the first half. The sophomore was used as a receiver more than ever (five catches, 68 yards).
On a tone-setting third down in the second half with Auburn trailing 10-3, a smart screen pass gave Bigsby open space to run 51 yards. He had another reception for 12 the next play. His outside zone carries increased. It forced Houston's defense to spread and create more holes up the middle.
Harsin seemed mindful of Auburn's strengths and weaknesses in his play-calling, until the game's final moments. Auburn trailed 17-13 with a third-and-2. It was the Tigers' last chance. They threw incomplete twice. No touch for Bigsby.
Auburn's secondary depth tested
All-America senior cornerback Roger McCreary opted out of the bowl game. Senior Smoke Monday was ejected for targeting in the third quarter, ending his Auburn career. Jaylin Simpson and Nehemiah Pritchett, the future of the cornerback position, were left to fend off Houston star receiver Nathaniel Dell until Simpson was also ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter.
Auburn's secondary depth was stretched past its limits. On Houston's opening touchdown drive, quarterback Clayton Tune converted third-and-12, fourth-and-1 and third-and-5. Receivers were left open over the middle of the field. The Tigers tightened up afterward and didn't allow Houston to continue beating them the same way. But the game was book-ended by the Cougars' touchdowns. The game-winner was a 26-yard pass with 3:27 left and with senior walk-on Devin Guice left behind in coverage.
Ro Torrence stepped up with a pass breakup and a forced fumble, an encouraging sign for the secondary's future, but Auburn was exposed on the decisive drives. Tune finished 26-for-40 with 283 passing yards to go with 43 rushing yards and was voted the game's most valuable player.
It's a reminder that there's work to be done in the Auburn secondary next year.
A captain's send-off
Chandler Wooten was the quintessential leader for Auburn this season, returning to the team after opting out in 2020 when his son was born. Wooten was named permanent team captain by the new coaching staff, and he started most of the season with Owen Pappoe injured. Without Zakoby McClain in Birmingham, he was the standout defender as Auburn tried to protect its lead. In the fourth quarter, he made the tackle on a key fourth-and-8 stop. Then he made an impressive catch for a deflected interception.
Fitting end to year of the tight end
Senior John Samuel Shenker, anointed an honorary captain for the game, broke the Auburn single-season records for receptions (33) and receiving yards (413) by a tight end. The latter transpired on a 41-yard catch over the middle.
It's unclear whether the Auburn senior will return for an extra year of eligibility, but Shenker's five-catch, 54-yard performance was a fitting way to end the 2021 season. One of the defining characteristics of Harsin's first year was the increased tight end usage in the pass game.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn football, Bryan Harsin lose to Houston in Birmingham Bowl