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Houston quarterback Clayton Tune (3) throws a pass against Auburn during the second half of the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Clayton Tune and the Houston Cougars punctuated an impressive season with a win in Southeastern Conference country.

Jake Herslow caught a 26-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass from Tune with 3:27 left to help lift No. 21 Houston to a 17-13 victory over Auburn on Tuesday in the Birmingham Bowl in front of a mostly orange-and-blue crowd at Protective Stadium.

The Cougars (12-2) marched 80 yards in eight plays to cap the third season in program history with at least 12 wins. They snapped a four-game bowl losing streak and won 12 of their final 13 games, the only loss after the opener coming to No. 4 Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said this win was similar to "some other ones that we've had this year."

"Just a bunch of guys that fight hard and win," Holgorsen said. "Basically, winning this game solidified this 2021 football team at the University of Houston as a great football team."

The Tigers (6-7) went in the opposite direction at the end of coach Bryan Harsin's first season. They ended with five straight losses for the first time in 71 years and dropped their third bowl game in a row.

Harsin was already looking ahead to, he hopes, better things.

"Nobody's going to go in there and just hang their head and say, 'Well, this is just how it is,' " Harsin said. "We're going to change it. We're going to fix it, and we're going to get better.

"I mean, there is no Plan B. There's Plan A, and we're here to make this work."

Game MVP Tune completed 26 of 40 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns with an interception while also rushing for 43 yards. Nathaniel Dell caught 10 passes for 150 yards, while Alton McCaskill ran for 66 yards and caught a touchdown pass.

"That's kind of been our offense this whole season, is when we've needed to make plays we do," Tune said. "There was no panic."

And Herslow, who walked on after playing for Old Dominion from 2017-19, delivered the biggest catch. He's a player Horgorsen called "one of the best stories in college football."

Auburn, which fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo after the regular season, had one more chance but couldn't get a first down. Tank Bigsby ran for 8 yards on first down and then T.J. Finley threw three straight incompletions on short passes.

Houston ran out the clock.

Finley completed 19 of 34 passes for 227 yards and a touchdown in his third start since replacing injured Bo Nix. Bigsby had 88 rushing yards and 68 receiving yards.

The Cougars had moved across midfield for the go-ahead score after Auburn's second targeting ejection, this time against Jaylin Simpson.

Tune set it up with a 20-yard pass to tight end Christian Trahan.

The Tigers rallied from a 10-0 deficit to take the lead late in the third quarter on Kobe Hudson's 12-yard touchdown catch from Finley on third and goal.

Auburn had several promising drives stall.

"It was pretty frustrating," tight end John Samuel Shenker said. "We moved the ball pretty well, then we'd get down there and we'd have little mental errors. That's just little things that you can't afford to happen this late in the season."

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Houston wide receiver Nathaniel Dell (1) celebrates with teammates after the defeated Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

 

Air Force 31, Louisville 27

DALLAS — Haaziq Daniels threw for two touchdowns and ran for two others as Air Force won the First Responder Bowl.

Daniels completed 9 of 10 passes for a season-high 252 yards, leading a triple-option offense that came into the game averaging an FBS-best 340.8 rushing yards and the second-fewest passing yards at 82.5 per game.

Brandon Lewis had touchdown catches of 64 and 61 yards for the Falcons (10-3), finishing with five receptions for a career-high 172 yards. That's the most receiving yardage for an Air Force player this season and the most ever in the Falcons' 28 bowl games.

Matthew Dapore kicked a 26-yard field goal with 5:28 left to give the Falcons a two-score lead.

Malik Cunningham threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Harrell and ran for a 22-yard touchdown with 2:57 to play for Louisville (6-7). Jawhar Jordan returned a kickoff 100 yards and Trevion Cooley had a 1-yard run for the Cardinals' other touchdowns.

Daniels ran for a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give Air Force a 7-0 lead and a 1-yard score in the final minute of the second quarter to put the Falcons ahead 28-14.

One of three Louisville players listed as out because of illness was redshirt freshman running back Jalen Mitchell, who led the team in rushing during the season with 722 yards.

 

Texas Tech 34, Mississippi State 7

MEMPHIS — Texas Tech's Donovan Smith threw for 252 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score in the Liberty Bowl win.

Tahj Brooks rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown and SaRodorick Thompson ran for 80 yards and a score for the Red Raiders (7-6), who finished with a winning record for the first time since 2015. They were appearing in their first bowl game since 2017.

Mississippi State (7-6) fell short in coach Mike Leach's first game against a former program of his. Leach, who went 84-43 at Texas Tech from 2000-09, fell short in his bid to become the first Bulldogs coach to end each of his first two seasons with a bowl victory. Mississippi State was playing in its 12th straight bowl game.

Red Raiders interim head coach Sonny Cumbie, a former player at Texas Tech under Leach, ended his five-game run with a 2-3 record. Cumbie, who is departing to become Louisiana Tech's coach, took over for Matt Wells in October.

 

Holiday Bowl scrapped

SAN DIEGO — The Holiday Bowl became the fifth postseason college football game to be canceled when UCLA was forced to pull out just hours before Tuesday's kickoff because of COVID-19 issues with the team.

The Bruins were scheduled to face No. 18 North Carolina State at Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres.

A surge in COVID-19 cases across the country has disrupted a second straight bowl season.

The Hawaii, Military, Fenway and Arizona bowls have already been canceled due to virus outbreaks leaving teams without enough available players. The Sun and Gator bowls have had to scramble to find replacement teams for their games.

North Carolina State is the fifth Atlantic Coast Conference team to have its bowl disrupted by the virus.

Miami, Virginia and Boston College all had to withdraw from their games. Wake Forest is set to play in the Gator Bowl, but will face Rutgers instead of Texas A&M as originally scheduled.

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