LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu returns a punt 62 yards for a touchdown during the first half against Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Championship game Saturday in Atlanta.
ATLANTA — The “Honey Badger” doesn’t care when his team struggles.
He just takes what he wants.
In this case, it’s a trip to the BCS National Championship game.
Tyrann Mathieu turned in an MVP performance when the No. 1 Tigers needed him most. He ran back a punt 62 yards for a touchdown, set up another score with a fumble recovery and finally finished off No. 12 Georgia with his best play yet — a whirling dervish of a return that led to the decisive TD in a 42-10 victory in the SEC title game Saturday.
LSU (13-0) advanced to a spot in the BCS title game in New Orleans, just 75 miles from its Baton Rouge campus. The Tigers’ opponent will be announced tonight during the BCS selection show, but SEC West rival and No. 2 Alabama — already beaten by the Tigers 9-6 in overtime a month ago — had the inside track even though it didn’t win its division. Another possibility is Oklahoma State, which walloped rival Oklahoma on Saturday night to make its case.
The Crimson Tide, however, will have to deal with a fearless sophomore who has the country’s best nickname, and is an even better player.
“Last night, I envisioned me having three touchdowns,” Mathieu said. “I think I came close to that. It comes down to me trying to do what I can for my team.”
His moniker stems from a humorous YouTube video that supposedly depicts the world’s fiercest animal (“Honey Badger don’t care, he just takes what he wants,” the narrator says). Defensive coordinator John Chavis showed the 5-foot-9, 175-pound player the clip on the way back from a victory at West Virginia, believing it fit Mathieu perfectly.
No argument there.
“My teammates love the name, and I think it depicts me on the field,” Mathieu said. “I just go with it. My teammates do a great job having my back. Anything I can do to help those guys, lift their spirits, I’ll do it. I think the Honey Badger does that sometimes.”
The Bulldogs (10-3) raced to a 10-0 lead that could’ve been even bigger if they hadn’t dropped a pair of potential touchdown passes in the first quarter. LSU looked downright awful on offense, going three-and-out on all seven of its possessions before halftime.
The Tigers didn’t even have one first down, finishing the half with just 12 total yards.
But, thanks to Mathieu, the deficit was only 10-7 when the teams went to the locker room. He fielded a punt at his own 38, found an opening and was gone — all the way to the end zone for his second punt return for a touchdown in as many weeks. He had a 92-yarder that sparked a win over Arkansas.
Well, almost to the end zone. A replay showed Mathieu flipped the ball to an official just before he crossed the goal line, but no one on the field caught the blunder.
“I’ll have to remember not to do that next time,” he said with a smile.
That was long forgotten by the time he was done. On Georgia’s first possession of the second half, quarterback Aaron Murray tried to scramble for a first down but had the ball knocked loose just before he hit the turf.
Mathieu was there to fall on it at the Bulldogs 26 for his fifth fumble recovery of the season.
LSU quickly seized its first lead. The Tigers finally picked up a first down before freshman Kenny Hilliard broke off a 15-yard run for the first of his three touchdowns. Normally, that would’ve been more than enough to win the game’s MVP award. Not even close on this day.
Mathieu dropped back to receive another punt. About the only thing the Bulldogs managed to do was keep him out of the end zone. He cradled the ball, took off down the center of the field, cut back to his left, stutter-stepped and turned on a burst of speed, basically came to a stop around the Georgia 30, then took off again and was finally dragged down at the 17.
He avoided or broke away from at least eight of the 11 red-clad guys trying to bring him down, a Heisman-worthy play that should be enough to at least get him to New York for the banquet — if not earn serious consideration for the award as the nation’s top player. Certainly, no defensive player has come up with more game-changing plays.
“As the conference champion in the SEC and being one of the key players on that team, I think he needs real consideration,” coach Les Miles said. “He’s a special player. He has a special place.”
Georgia would certainly be willing to send a letter of recommendation. Mathieu essentially ruined any chance of the Bulldogs — a 13 1/2-point underdog — pulling off an upset that would’ve shaken up the race for No. 1.
“I enjoy watching him play football except when he plays against us.” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “You appreciate the way he plays. There’s just something about him. He finds a way to do something special just about every game. He did it again today.”
Mathieu has scored four touchdowns this season — two on returns, two more from his cornerback spot. He’s forced six fumbles. He’s picked off two passes. He the leading tackler on one of the nation’s top defenses.
“I respect him a lot, especially with me being a return guy,” Georgia’s Brandon Boykin said. “That turned the momentum of the game.”
LSU took control with a 21-point third quarter, coming back from a double-digit deficit for the second week in a row and leaving little doubt that it’s the best team in country heading into bowl season. The only other unbeaten team, Houston, was blown out in the Conference USA championship game Saturday. All the other top teams have at least one loss.
The Tigers have knocked off five teams in The Associated Press’ current Top 25 — including three of the top eight. They’ll still have to win one more game to claim the BCS title, but they could still be voted No. 1 in the final AP poll, no matter what happens Jan. 9 in the Big Easy.
Miles, as least for public consumption, said he looks forward to a rematch with the Tide, a game that will ensure the SEC of its sixth straight national champion.
“I would certainly understand if college football decides it should be two SEC teams playing for the national championship,” he said. “It’s a very special conference with very special teams.”
SEC East champion Georgia came into the game on a 10-game winning streak, and the Bulldogs showed no fear of LSU in the early going. Murray connected with Tavarres King on a 44-yard pass and could’ve had a TD when a pass across the middle went through King’s hands. They settled for Blair Walsh’s 40-yard field goal.
Knowing he would have to throw caution to the wind, Richt called an onside kick that worked the perfection. Walsh bounced the ball off the turf and high into the air. Alec Ogletree soared in to grab it beyond the necessary 10 yards, giving the Bulldogs another possession.
They should’ve scored a touchdown. Instead, they wound up with nothing. Freshman Malcolm Mitchell dropped a pass right in his hands at the LSU 5 with no one around, and Walsh missed a 45-yard try.
But LSU couldn’t do anything with the ball. The Tigers’ longest play in the first half was 9 yards. Eleven of their 21 plays went for zero or negative yards. Outside of Mathieu, punter Brad Wing was LSU’s best weapon, averaging 54.1 yards on his first seven punts.
Both offenses stalled in the second quarter, managing a grand total of 2 yards — 1 for each team. Georgia went to the locker room with a commanding 135-12 lead in total yards, but certainly a sense it had missed its chance to put away an LSU team that had outscored No. 6 Arkansas 41-3 after falling into an early 14-0 hole.
Hilliard scored on a 4-yard run after Mathieu’s second long return to make it 21-10, essentially enough to finish off the Bulldogs, but the freshman runner then hauled in an 8-yard touchdown pass for good measure.
The Tigers romped in the final period. Alfred Blue broke off a 48-yard touchdown run and Morris Claiborne returned an interception 45 yards for the final score. LSU won even though Jordan Jefferson completed only five passes and the offense totaled a mere 237 yards.
Murray had a miserable day, completing just 16 of 40 for 163 yards with two interceptions. Georgia’s running game was non-existent with Isaiah Crowell hobbling on a sore ankle. The freshman had only 15 yards on 10 carries.
The Bulldogs will likely settle for a trip to the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
Mathieu has a bigger goal in mind.
He doesn’t care what it takes to get there.
“There’s a part of Tyrann Mathieu that’s definitely the ‘Honey Badger’,” Miles said. “On the football field, he takes what he wants.”