The Houston Cougars capped off a 12-win season by defeating the Auburn Tigers in the 2021 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl 17-13. In a game that was a defensive struggle, the Cougars made the plays to win, and the Tigers did not. Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune connected with receiver Jake Herslow for 26 yards to go up with 3:37 remaining in the game. Due to back-to-back Kobe Hudson drops, Auburn was unable to keep a drive going, and Houston clinched the win. The loss is the fifth consecutive for Auburn, and they end their season at 6-7 after a promising 6-2 start. Tune was named MVP of the game with 283 yards passing and two touchdowns. He also added in 43 yards rushing on seven carries.
Houston Wins 2021 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl 17-13
While this was a low-scoring contest, the Cougar offense was clicking early. On the first possession of the game, Houston marched 87 yards on 12 plays to take an early 7-0 lead. Tune connected with his favorite target in Nathanial Dell three times on the drive. Dell had a big game in Birmingham with ten receptions and 150 yards on the day. That first touchdown drive though was capped off on a five-yard catch by running back Alton McCaskill with 8:46 remaining in the first quarter.
The Auburn offense was not so successful early in the game. In their first three possessions, they had two punts and one turnover on downs. On the third drive of the game, the Tigers did show some promise going 12 plays for 55 yards but were unable to close it with any points. Auburn had looked to convert on a fourth and two with 11:08 in the second. A pass from T. J. Finley to Shedrick Jackson that originally was ruled complete was reviewed and overturned as incomplete.
The Cougars then took the ball 45 yards and added in a Dalton Witherspoon 52-yard field goal to go up 10-0. Auburn answered back with a field goal of their own by Ben Patton of 27 yards with 3:10 left until halftime. The Houston Cougars took that 10-3 advantage into the locker room at intermission.
The Auburn offense picked it up in the second half and found some success on the first drive of the second half. A lot of that success came from running back Tank Bigsby. It was a solid bowl performance overall by Bigsby with 164 total yards on 21 touches. Of all the great recruiting Bryan Harsin has done, getting Bigsby to return may have been his best work. Despite the success on the drive, Auburn had to settle to three with another Patton field goal. That score made it 10-6 with 12:12 in the third quarter.
The Tigers forced a Cougars punt on the next possession and were finally able to get into the end zone. On a third and goal from the Houston 12, Finley was able to connect with Kobe Hudson for a score to put Auburn up 13-10 with 3:52 remaining in the third. A big play that got the Tigers going on the drive was a 41-yard strike down the middle to John Samuel Shenker for 41 yards. It was one five catches for Shenker on the day for a total of 54 yards.
Auburn had opportunities to extend the lead and perhaps put the game away with two interceptions in the second half but was unable to capitalize. The first one was by Nehemiah Pritchett when he picked off Tune with 2:28 in the third. The second was off a trick play run by the Cougars when Seth Green attempted a pass that was tipped and intercepted by Chandler Wooten. Both times Auburn had to punt the ball back to Houston. The second punt after an interception led to the game-winning drive where Tune connected with Herslow to go up 17-13.
Auburn did have one last chance with the ball with 3:17 left. On first down, Bigsby ran for eight yards. The Tigers then had three straight incompletions and gave the ball back to Houston. The last two passes were both dropped by Hudson and would have moved the chains. Houston then ran out the clock to clinch the Birmingham Bowl victory.
2021 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl Standouts
While Houston was very successful through the air, running back Alton McCaskill had a solid afternoon. He rushed for 78 yards on 14 carries and had the one receiving touchdown. He also had the clinching run to milk the clock for the Cougars. Defensively they were led by senior linebacker Deontay Anderson with nine tackles and a forced fumble.
For Auburn, Smoke Monday was all over the field until he was unfortunately ejected for targeting late in the third quarter. In his final game, Monday had five tackles. Wooten led the Tigers with 12 total tackles and seven solos.