ATLANTA -- They say the Honey Badger takes what he wants.
On Saturday, with the LSU offense running on embalming fluid in the first half, Tyrann Mathieu plucked the SEC championship right out from under the noses of an inspired Georgia team. In the process, he sent the No. 1 Tigers on their way to the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.
They’re crazy about Mathieu on the Bayou, for sure. But the BCS organizers might be even bigger fans, because without his heroics in jump-starting LSU to its 42-10 dismantling of Georgia, there could have been utter chaos when those final BCS standings come out on Sunday night.
Mathieu took a snooze-fest in the first half and turned it into his own little highlight show.
“Everybody calls him the Honey Badger. I call him the Chosen One,” LSU receiver Russell Shepard said. “When we need a play, he makes that play. The dude is a great testament to those kids who didn’t get recruited highly and just got overlooked.
“He’s not the fastest, and he’s not the biggest. But he plays with a lot of passion.”
Mathieu, making yet another case as to why he belongs at the Heisman Trophy ceremonies next weekend, broke loose on a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter -- his fourth touchdown of the season.
Remember, he hasn’t taken an offensive snap all season.
“Last night, I envisioned having three touchdowns,” Mathieu said. “I think I came close to that. What it came down to is me trying to do what I can for my team. I put the pressure on myself at times.”
And when it comes to the other team, he keeps applying that pressure.
Georgia, playing great defense, managed to get into halftime with a 10-7 lead.
But then on the first possession of the second half, LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers leveled a scrambling Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. The ball popped loose, and Mathieu was there to pounce on it at the Bulldogs’ 27, setting up the Tigers’ second touchdown.
Georgia again couldn’t go anywhere on its next possession and did the unthinkable. The Bulldogs kicked it to Mathieu again, and he turned in his second dazzling punt return of the night to send the Bulldogs packing for good.
On this return, as many as seven Georgia defenders had chances at Mathieu. He was eventually dragged down at the Bulldogs’ 17-yard line.
“He breaks people down. He breaks their spirit down,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “That’s what you’ve got to do, take away people’s heart, and he does that.”
Mathieu, voted the SEC championship game MVP, called it an “honor” to pick up his team.
And, man, did the Tigers needed a pick-me-up. They didn’t manage their first first down until the 13:26 mark of the third quarter. That’s after netting 1 yard of total offense in the second quarter.
“My teammates do a great job of having my back,” said Mathieu, who’s now forced six fumbles and has recovered five this season. “Anything I can do for those guys to lift their spirit, I think the Honey Badger [does] that sometimes.”
In a lot of ways, he embodies this entire LSU football team.
Mathieu’s one-game suspension for testing positive for synthetic marijuana back in October was the kind of thing that would have rocked a lot of teams. Teammates Spencer Ware and Tharold Simon were also suspended against Auburn.
Obviously this isn’t just any team.
The Tigers have weathered bar brawls, suspensions and injuries. They even came back after offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe gave up play-calling duties in August after announcing that he had Parkinson’s disease.
But as LSU coach Les Miles said last week following the Tigers’ 41-17 rout of Arkansas, this team doesn’t flinch.
“We’ve just been through so much together,” Mathieu said.
When Mathieu rejoined the team in October, he was determined to make amends.
“He just said, ‘I’m going to make it up,’” Shepard recounted. “It was a short statement, but it meant a lot. He knew he was one of our leaders. We’re all brothers, and we’re in this together.
“We want to make history. Our ultimate goal is to be one of the best teams in college football history.”
Mathieu said he’ll let the voters determine whether he’ll get a trip to New York City next week for the Heisman Trophy ceremonies.
“I just try to go out there and play my best football for my team and my coaches,” said Mathieu.
The replay on his punt return for a touchdown looked like he might have tossed the ball to the official prior to crossing the goal line.
“I could see the referee looking at me kind of strange,” Mathieu conceded. “I’ll be sure next time to make sure I cross the goal line.”
It’s about the only thing he did wrong Saturday.
The ultimate compliment came from Georgia coach Mark Richt.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Richt said. “I enjoy watching the guy play football other than when he plays against us, because when you see a guy like that, you can appreciate it. You appreciate it because of how he plays.
“There’s something about him that he seems to find a way to do something special just about every game … and he did it again.”
Something says it won’t be the last time, either.