published Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

LSU's Honey Badger Mathieu takes to spotlight

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    LSU sophomore cornerback Tyrann Mathieu scored his second touchdown this season on Oct. 1, when he stripped Kentucky backup quarterback Maxwell Smith and returned the fumble 23 yards.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson had a 510-yard passing performance against Texas A&M and South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore rushed for 246 yards against Navy, but there is no doubt about the Southeastern Conference's most dominant player at the midway mark.

LSU sophomore cornerback Tyrann Matheiu has impacted every game for the 6-0 and top-ranked Tigers, beginning with his strip of Oregon's Kenyon Barner in the opener that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown for the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder from New Orleans. Mathieu punched the ball from Kentucky backup quarterback Maxwell Smith two weeks ago, causing a fumble he returned 23 yards for a score, and he has made at least one tackle for loss in every game but one.

That exception was against West Virginia, when Mathieu recorded an interception and a fumble recovery.

"The guy is always aware of what's going on," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. "He's just a ball hawk who loves to play, and you can tell that every Saturday. He's an unbelievable player and might be the best football player that we'll face this year."

In a season in which quarterbacks such as Stanford's Andrew Luck, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson and Boise State's Kellen Moore are at the forefront of the Heisman Trophy conversation, Mathieu is making a case to become the second defensive player ever to win the award. The first was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997.

Mathieu certainly won't be lacking for showcase opportunities, as LSU is in the midst of playing four consecutive games on CBS.

"I'm having a whole lot of fun, and I had a whole lot of fun last year playing alongside Patrick Peterson," Mathieu said. "This year has been a little different, because I've had to step into a leadership role, but it's still about playing hard and having fun."

Said CBS analyst Gary Danielson: "Charles Woodson and Ndamukong Suh are the only two individual defensive players I can remember that have had as much impact as Tyrann Mathieu."

LSU coach Les Miles believes Mathieu should be considered for the Heisman, pointing out that recent recipients have been the best players on tremendous teams. The Tigers enter Saturday's game at Tennessee having won six games by the average score of 39-13, and they rank fifth nationally in total defense, allowing 254 yards a game.

The Tigers have been stout from the start recently, forcing Kentucky into five straight three-and-outs and holding Florida last Saturday to minus-4 yards through its first two possessions.

"That's what we try and do as a defense," Mathieu said. "We try and set the tone for our offense and give our offense some room to breathe."

Mathieu is nicknamed the "Honey Badger" after an entertaining, albeit profane, YouTube clip about a relentless animal from Africa and India that takes whatever it wants. The clip, which shows the honey badger going after everything from bee hives to cobras, had close to 20 million views as of Tuesday afternoon.

Former Tennessee and current LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis introduced the video to Mathieu.

"We were laughing pretty hard," Mathieu said. "A lot of the fans and the guys on the team love it. They look forward to the 'Honey Badger' taking the field every Saturday. I just go along with it."

Mathieu signed out of St. Augustine High as Rivals.com's 13th-best cornerback nationally and was an instant hit. As a freshman last year, he led the SEC and ranked fifth nationally with five forced fumbles, and he tied for the league lead with three fumble recoveries.

In January's 41-24 thumping of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, Mathieu earned defensive MVP honors after tallying seven tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery. He said the interception against the Aggies remains his favorite play.

"We saw it in that first camp that he had that aggressiveness and the want to compete," Miles said. "We actually saw that in high school, and that allowed us to anticipate him being this kind of player. He envisions these plays as an opportunity for something to happen."

Now 19 games into his college career, Mathieu has racked up 98 tackles, 13.5 for loss, six sacks, four interceptions, six fumble recoveries, 11 pass deflections and nine forced fumbles. His forced fumbles are the most in LSU history.

Phillips said Mathieu is most dangerous as a nickel back, because he can be used in blitzes, but that's for Derek Dooley to worry about this week.

"Half the time he does it, the coach doesn't even know what he's doing," Dooley said. "He sees it. He triggers, and he creates. That's what good players do."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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