By Paul Newberry/The Associated Press
ATLANTA — LSU slogged its way through a brutal first half. The nation’s top-ranked team had only 12 yards and not even a single first down.
The “Honey Badger” didn’t care.
He just took what he wanted — a trip to the national championship game.
Tyrann Mathieu turned in an MVP performance when the Tigers needed him most, running back a punt 62 yards for a touchdown, setting up another score with a fumble recovery and finally finishing off No. 12 Georgia with his best play yet, a whirling dervish of a return that led to the decisive TD of a 42-10 victory in the Southeastern Conference championship 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 Sunday night, 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.
The Bulldogs tried to really shake things up, racing 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.
But, thanks to Mathieu, the deficit was only 10-7 when the teams went to the locker room. He took 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. 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.
That was long forgotten by the time the fearless sophomore 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. Who was there to fall on it at the Bulldogs 26?
Mathieu, of course, his fifth fumble recovery of the season.
LSU quickly seized its first lead. The Tigers finally picked up a first down, then 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, whose nickname comes from a humorous YouTube video about supposedly the world’s more fearless animal (“Honey Badger don’t care, he just takes what he wants,” the narrator says), dropped back to receive another punt. About the only thing the Bulldogs managed to do was keep him out of the end zone.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pounder 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 him serious consideration for the award as the nation’s top player. Certainly, no defensive player has come up with more big plays.
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 one of the top tacklers on one of the nation’s top defenses.
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.
If there was ever a year when no playoff was needed, it’s this one. 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 a case can be made that they deserve to be voted No. 1 in the AP poll, no matter what happens Jan. 9 in the Big Easy.