Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Mathieu's big plays carry LSU


By the time there was a minute left in LSU-West Virginia game late Saturday night and most of the raucous Mountaineer crowd already had filed out of the stadium, the remaining WVU fans had seen more than enough of Tyrann Mathieu. Still, there he was, all 5-feet-8, 183 pounds of swagger, bobbing his head up and down ready to field a Mountaineer punt, looking to rub the home team's nose in it just one more time. The game, at 47-21, had been decided, but Mathieu was relishing every last moment, and he wasn't bashful about letting everyone in blue and gold know it.

One of the Mountaineer fans behind the WVU bench screamed out, "Hey, No. 7, you suck!"

A WVU reserve glanced back and then shook his head. You can say many things about Tyrann Mathieu, but it's safe to say he is a pretty damn fine football player. Just ask the Mountaineers staff, who had game-planned all week for him, but the SAM linebacker/cornerback/defensive whirlwind still managed to create two of the biggest plays of the night.

The first: stripping Brad Starks, one of WVU's biggest receivers, after a catch on a third-and-11. But Mathieu's second huge play illuminates why he is such a perfect fit for Les Miles' gambling nature.

With under a minute left in the second quarter, LSU was up 20-7. The Tigers stopped the Mountaineers, one of the nation's most prolific attacks, on a third-and-9 from their own 35 to seemingly force a punt. WVU was flagged for holding on the play. Conventional wisdom says decline it and get off the field. Miles said otherwise, accepting the penalty to give his D another shot, sensing the hole was deepening for WVU.

Sure enough, Mathieu cashed in. He blitzed, realized a screen pass was coming behind him, jumped, swatted the pass out of the air, snared the deflection and returned it 16 yards to the WVU 1-yard line. Just like that, Mathieu had zapped all of the energy out of the stadium and LSU was headed to the locker room with a 27-7 lead.

By now, Mathieu's playmaking skills should be no surprise. I suspect Saturday night he became a household name among college football fans. Truth is, he has been wrecking drives and forcing turnovers at a staggering rate (13 in 17 games) since he arrived in Baton Rouge in 2010 as an unheralded recruit from New Orleans.

On a team overstuffed with blue-chip recruits, Mathieu stands out as much for his low recruiting profile as he does for his platinum-dyed hair and size. The Tigers only had to beat FIU, Louisiana-Monroe and Hampton for him. Back then, almost everyone was skeptical about his size.

Frank Wilson, LSU's ace recruiter, was a college teammate of Mathieu's high school coach at St. Aug's. Wilson, a former coach at O. Perry Walker in New Orleans and a St. Aug's grad himself, knows that city about as well as anyone in college coaching. He had always loved Mathieu's quickness and attitude. Wilson had been hearing about Mathieu for years dating back to the kid's playing days in middle school in NORD (New Orleans Recreation Department).

"He was like a legend," Wilson said. "People kept telling me, 'You gotta go see little Tyrann Mathieu.'"

Wilson, then an assistant at Tennessee, invited Mathieu up to the Vols camp, where the 5-8, 160-pound DB won defensive MVP honors.

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"He shut everyone down. He was ultra competitive, fearless," Wilson told me after the game Saturday night. "He's got a heart like no other."

Problem was, most SEC schools are skittish about 5-8, 160-pound cornerbacks. Wilson and his mentor, Ed Orgeron, then UT's recruiting coordinator, differed over Mathieu's merits as a prospect. Wilson kept lobbying, unsuccessfully, that Mathieu was big enough and plenty fast enough. And certainly plenty feisty enough. Mathieu also went to summer camp in Tuscaloosa, but the Tide staff wasn't interested. Still, some buzz grew around Louisiana and LSU offered him.

"He can do it all," said Wilson, who a few months before signing day 2010 had returned home to become the Tigers' recruiting coordinator and running backs coach. "He can run, change direction, has off-the-charts ball skills and his biggest attribute is his heart. The thing about him is you really can't measure how special he is by what you see in a camp. You need to be around him. You need to see him in games."

Saying Mathieu plays with an edge is like saying Les Miles is unconventional. Wilson recalled visiting Mathieu's school to watch practice. Mathieu strutted right up in front of the coach, bent down and slapped the ground while shouting "I'm here! I'm here!"

LSU is grateful that ended up in Baton Rouge, not somewhere smaller. Lord knows being told he's not big enough, not good enough has had quite the impact on the sophomore.

"All those other schools didn't want me," he said. "I've always played with a chip on my shoulder, and I'm still playing with that chip on my shoulder.

"I love this game. I'm always looking to get the edge and when I'm out there I'll talk some crap."

Teammates marvel at his spirit. They say they were skeptical at first when he showed up in Baton Rouge the summer before his freshman year, but those doubts were dashed when Mathieu started locking up LSU standouts Ruben Randle and Russell Shepard in summer 7-on-7 work.

"It must be in his blood," LSU safety Eric Reid said. "He has tenacity like nobody I've ever seen."

Mathieu's buddies even came up with what they thought was the perfect nickname for him: The Honey Badger, named after the viral YouTube curiosity over "the world's most fearless" animal. The Honey Badger, legend has it, will basically attack anything -- bigger, smaller, it doesn't matter -- at any time. Just ask rival offenses who try and get ready for LSU who that sounds like.

"He really hates that nickname," Wilson said.

Mathieu said he doesn't hate it, but he sure doesn't love it. His teammates say it will stick. It may be the one thing Mathieu can't overcome.

I'll have much more on LSU and West Virginia later this week in a feature about how the Mountaineers prepared for the Tigers' vaunted defense and for the Honey Badger.

Random stuff

 I missed on the FSU-Clemson pick, thinking that despite the injuries the 'Noles would respond on the road -- and that the Tigers would struggle coming off of a big comeback win over Auburn. Didn't happen. Give credit to the Tigers and to Dabo Swinney, who came into the season on the hot seat, but is now 4-0. Swinney made an unconventional hire to run his offense, bringing on Chad Morris, a former Texas high school coach, who only had one year of college coaching experience before Swinney flipped him the keys.

Morris, the high school coach of Jevan Snead and Garrett Gilbert, among others, is a protégé of Gus Malzahn and is using the hurry-up and a boatload of young talent to keep defenses off balance. The Tigers had been shaky against inferior competition in their first two games. Their O-line especially looked a bit lost in the new system, giving up seven sacks in those two games, but that group has jelled fast.

Meanwhile, former top recruit Tajh Boyd is looking very comfortable as a trigger man with an array of weapons. Boyd torched a 'Noles defense that came in having only allowed 11 points a game. Just a week earlier FSU's defense gave Oklahoma's Heisman hopeful Landry Jones fits all night. Boyd was 23 of 37 for 344 yards and three TDs, plus a rushing score. The Tigers also have one of the best freshmen in the country in Sammy Watkins , who had eight catches for 141 yards and two TDs. The best stat of all: The Tigers went 9 of 17 on third downs. They rank 13th in the country on third downs this season, hitting on 53 percent, up from 67th in 2010 (39 percent). That said, I'm not ready to board the Clemson bandwagon just yet. The Tigers still have a big test at a tough Virginia Tech team up next. The Hokies are No. 6 in the country in defense and 10th in sacks. Last time Clemson visited Blacksburg was in 2006 when the then-No. 10 Tigers got thumped by an unranked Tech squad 24-7.

 My Heisman Top Five: 1. Robert Griffin (see below); 2. Andrew Luck; 3. Kellen Moore; 4. Denard Robinson; 5. Tyrann Mathieu. I realize not having Luck as the default No. 1 at this point of the season may seem foolish to some, but Griffin has been the sharpest guy out there thus far.

 I don't have Brandon Weeden in my Heisman Top 5, but he's still on the radar for the way he and Oklahoma State responded at Texas A&M after falling way behind. The strong-armed former minor-league pitcher rallied to set school records for completions (47) and passing yards (438).

 LSU's opening win in Texas over Oregon, where they shut down the Ducks, has taken a lot of wattage away from Chip Kelly's team. I noticed that LaMichael James ran for a school-record 288 yards in a 56-31 blowout of beleaguered Arizona, but I suspect many Heisman voters kind of shrug their shoulders at the gaudy stats these days, and they will until Oregon beats a "heavyweight" opponent.

 The most stunning result of the day: Maryland getting blown out of the building by Temple. Al Golden left behind some talent and new head coach Steve Addazio, who always had the respect of his players at UF (but certainly not their fans), deserves a lot of credit for the way his team went on the road and mauled the Terps. After three quarters, Temple led 31-0 and had outrushed the Terps 219 yards to 6. The victory marked the first time the Owls beat any team from a BCS conference on the road since 2002, when Temple defeated Rutgers. After getting booted from the Big East in 2005, they were 0-13 against teams from AQs on the road with an average losing margin of 36 points a game.

I'm curious if Ralph Friedgen is chuckling somewhere. Despite all of the attention the Terps received for their eye-catching unis, this is clearly not the way Randy Edsall would have hoped his first month at Maryland would go. They barely beat a Miami team missing almost half of its starters. Then, Maryland lost at home to West Virginia before getting blasted by Temple. After next week's game against FCS Towson, things really get rough for the Terps, who have road trips to Georgia Tech and FSU sandwiched around a game with Clemson. Edsall, by the way, is now 3-4 all-time against the Owls.

 As impressive as LSU has been (in addition to the Tigers' ferocious D, the running game with Spencer Ware and Michael Ford is superb too), I still feel like 'Bama is in the best position to come out of the SEC. The Tide looked outstanding on both sides of the ball dominating a dangerous Arkansas team. AJ McCarron has been steady. The ground attack with Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy brutalizes teams and Nick Saban's defense never gives the opponent much hope.

The Tide had 10 tackles for loss against the 'Hogs, hammering Tyler Wilson after he got off to a fast start. They made Arkansas too one-dimensional and that made things look easy for the Tide, who surrendered only 17 yards on the ground on 19 carries. The other factor in 'Bama's favor is LSU has to visit Tuscaloosa.

 As much as Paul Johnson is known for his running game, the Yellow Jackets have another freakish wideout emerging in Stephen Hill. The willowy 6-5 junior, who had displayed suspect hands in the past, not only is making highlight-reel grabs, but many others too. He helped Tech to a good 35-28 win over North Carolina after catching six passes for 151 yards and a TD.

 Props to Dennis Erickson for finally beating Southern California. The Sun Devils took advantage of USC's mental mistakes to blow open the game and got a really gritty performance by Cameron Marshall, who overcame a nagging ankle injury to run for 141 yards and three TDs.

I saw how some folks took issue with Erickson getting a Gatorade shower after the game, but make no mistake this was a pivotal game for a coach who really needs a bounce-back year to save his job. If ASU lost, the Sun Devils would've dropped to 2-2 with two of their next three on the road, at Utah and at Oregon. Instead, they head into next week's game against hapless Oregon State riding some momentum.

 The only Gators who should be happier than QB John Brantley about Charlie Weis' arrival in Gainesville are UF's running backs. The Gators hammered Kentucky, going for 405 yards rushing, making it two times this season where they've gone over 300 yards rushing.

 After yet another Notre Dame turnover, my friend John Walters noted the Irish had committed their 15th turnover in only 14 quarters this season. To put that level of sloppiness in context, ND's 15 turnovers already is more than nine teams had all of last year.

 Stat of the Day: I'm going back to the well from last week via Robert Griffin III. RG3 is keeping up his blistering pace. Against Rice he went 29 of 33 for 338 yards and five TDs in a 56-31 rout. His TD-INC is a ridiculous 13-12. Again this is his TD-to-incompletions rate, not TD-to-interceptions rate. Next for Griffin is his first road game at a K-State team coming off a good win at Miami, where the Wildcats pounded the 'Canes on the ground.

 Stat of the Day, Take II: This one comes from Nebraska sports information via the Omaha World Herald: Last week, Nebraska had more than double its rushing yards in the second half against Washington (92 in the first half, 217 after the break). The Huskers almost did it again Saturday, going for 113 early and then 220 late.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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