LSU's recipe for success began with Mathieu

COLUMN: When the Tigers needed a wakeup call Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, the sophomore cornerback/punt return came up big.

ATLANTA – If you’ve watched this magical and sometimes turbulent carpet ride the LSU football team has been on all season – and there are clearly a lot of you who have – you had to be sitting there Saturday and wondering just when the Tigers would turn it on.


Then when the score got to 10-0 in Georgia’s favor and the Tigers remained flat and lifeless, you had to be a worried a bit, right?


It just looked and felt strange to see LSU struggling like that after 12 games of domination, intensity and talent all rolled into a magnificent regular season.


Right when it looked like that season-long dream was about to crash and burn and perhaps throw this whole BCS thing into even more turmoil, the Tigers found themselves and re-established their identity.


The defense got back to being nasty and that stemmed the wave of momentum the Bulldogs had ridden for a quarter and a half.


And with a championship starting to slip away, Tyrann Mathieu rode in on the football equivalent of a white horse.


Mathieu may or may not be a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy this season. You may not always like the way he carries himself on the field, although he has toned down his trash talk considerably. His off-field choices may leave something to be desired – at least one of them this season.


But there’s absolutely no debate over this: The kid knows how to change a football game and he has impeccable timing.


Saturday was simply the latest example, but for those who have watched him blossom the last seasons, it was no surprise.


It’s just what he does.


As big as his punt-return touchdown was, Mathieu's 46-yard play in the second half was more incredible.

“It just seems like he makes bigger and bigger plays when we need him to,” safety Eric Reid said.


“It gave us a lot of momentum and intensity and it gave the offense a spark after that and they were able to get into the end zone.”


Indeed, what the LSU defense had started by forcing back-to-back Bulldogs punts, Mathieu accelerated.


Afterward he said he wanted to give the Tigers a spark because he knew – hell everybody did by then – the offense was struggling to do anything against a Georgia defense that was living up to its own pre-game talk about being better than its LSU counterpart.


Mathieu did that, but there was more to it.


His 62-yard punt-return touchdown breathed life into the purple-and-gold faction of the Georgia Dome crowd and deflated the much larger Georgia contention.


After dominating the No. 1-ranked team for 24 minutes, the Bulldogs were suddenly on their heels. They spent the rest of the day playing like a team waiting for the other shoe to drop.


So at least when it did over and over in the second half, it shouldn’t have been a shock to Georgia.


The punt return didn’t get the LSU offense revved up much the rest of the first half. That didn’t get started until after halftime, and the credit for the about-face goes to the Tigers’ defense and to freshman Kenny Hilliard.


Mathieu jumped on a fumble on Georgia's first possession of the third quarter and the Bulldogs' offense was never the same.

After going 30 minutes without forcing many Bulldogs’ mistakes, LSU changed that quickly in the third quarter. When Aaron Murray tried to scramble for a first down on Georgia’s first possession after halftime, Mike Brockers swatted the ball out of his hands and Mathieu pounced on it at the 26-yard-line.


Clearly rattled, the Bulldogs’ defense got an illegal substitution flag. On the next snap Jordan Jefferson threw a rare on-target pass to Rueben Randle for 6 yards and LSU’s initial first down of the game after seven possessions of first-half futility.


From there, Hilliard took over.


On a simple, bread-and-butter off-tackle play, the stocky 240-pound freshman blasted through a pair of arm tackles and dove into the end zone to give the Tigers the lead.


Whatever tension or doubt remained for the LSU offense seemed to evaporate with the run


“Once somebody pops it like that, it motivates us all to start competing as hard as we can and trying to do everything better,” tailback Alfred Blue said


“We knew we had to wear them down, keep pounding and eventually they were going to fold up. That’s what happened.”


Mathieu and Hilliard played a part in a breathing-room touchdown moments later with a 46-yard punt return – one likely to have an early slot in the season highlight reel – and a 4-yard TD fueling a short drive that upped the lead to 21-10.


For good measure, Hilliard provided another signature moment when he snared a waggle pass from Jefferson and plowed over Bulldogs’ cornerback Brandon Boykin on the flat on the way to the end zone.


Hilliard said he came out of halftime “a little mad.”


“We came out with a lot of fire and I tried to run the ball hard and get us going,” he said.


It worked.


The Tigers scored touchdowns on four of their first five offensive possessions after halftime, culminating with 70- and 93-yard drives that Georgia had no answer for.


The LSU offensive line, after 30 minutes of getting dominated at the point of attack, took the fight to the Bulldogs and helped churn out 241 total yards in the second half.


“They blocked well,” Hilliard said of the change from one half to the next. “(Coach Greg Studrawa) got on them at halftime and told them they needed to pick it and that’s what they did.”


In the process, the o-line helped finish what the defense started, Mathieu ignited and Hilliard fortified.


And that recipe removed that doubt that surfaced Saturday and probably had you wondering if LSU’s magic had run out.


Not now and perhaps not this season. One more game to find out.

NOTES: Wing, Mathieu and Hilliard spark comeback

Half-and-half works fine for the Tigers


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