Nothing can stop the Honey Badger when it’s hungry.
The Honey Badger just takes what it wants. It runs all over the place.
The Honey Badger is pretty badass.
A YouTube spinoff of a popular viral video declares all of the above about Louisiana State cornerback Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu. And in second-ranked LSU’s 47-21 rout of overmatched No. 16 West Virginia on Saturday night before 62,056 crazed fans at Milan Puskar Stadium, he was just as fearless as his vicious, furry namesake.
With a forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception along with six tackles, the blonde-haired, undersized 19-year-old sophomore showed he is the best player on perhaps the nation’s best defense. The lockdown cornerback also just might be the nation’s best defensive back and a dark horse Heisman contender.
“The things that he does,” LSU coach Les Miles said, “it’s incredible.”
Actually, it’s almost unbelievable considering Mathieu has now caused 13 turnovers in just 17 career games, despite not becoming a starter until this season. Last season, he caused 10 turnovers (five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions) and was the defensive most valuable player in the Cotton Bowl, a game in which he had two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception.
He leads LSU in tackles this season with 30 and is tied for first in pass breakups (four).
“He’s like a magnet to the ball,” LSU assistant coach Frank Wilson said. “If he strips it, he gets it. He tips it, he gets it. He blocks it, he gets it. It’s unexplainable.”
Mathieu’s forced fumble and fumble recovery against West Virginia all came on one play in the first quarter. After making a rare catch against Mathieu for 10 yards, Mountaineers wide receiver Brad Starks tried to fight to get the extra yard he needed for a first down at his team’s 45-yard line
But Mathieu grabbed Starks from behind and before spinning him to the ground ripped the ball away in one motion.
“I thought I was going to catch the (ball for an interception),” Mathieu said. “I didn’t see (Starks) and he jumped in front of me. It was about me trying to make the next play.”
Mathieu’s interception was even more impressive than the first turnover he forced. Blitzing on third-and-19 at the West Virginia 25-yard line in the second quarter, he jumped up and deflected West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith’s quick wide receiver screen pass and after intercepting it returned the ball to the Mountaineers 1-yard line.
“I tried to anticipate the play,” Mathieu said. “I knew he was going to try to get the ball to the (receiver). It was about me just getting up for it and getting my hands on the ball.”
And while Mathieu’s knack for making big plays is uncanny, his teammates have become accustomed to it.
“It just has to be in his blood,” LSU sophomore free safety Eric Reid said. “He always says if there’s a play to be made, he’s going to make it.”
But when Mathieu was coming out of St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, there were plenty of questions about whether he could play major college football.
“Everybody was scared,” Wilson said. “As small as he is now, he was smaller in high school. You’re talking about someone who was 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds. When you’re talking about a premier cornerback in the SEC, sometimes we don’t allow our eyes to believe what it is. He’s bona fide. He’s the real deal.”
Wilson was the coach of O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans when he first saw a young Mathieu play park football. Later when Mathieu was a sophomore at St. Augustine, his coach called Wilson, then an assistant at Tennessee.
The coach had been on Wilson’s staff and compared Mathieu to NFL players like Buster Davis and Mike Wallace, all of whom they had coached at Walker High.
When Wilson watched Mathieu play, he saw an undersized player who had a burning desire to disprove what he had always been told.
“You’re a little too short,” Mathieu was told. “You’re a little too small.”
Mathieu made sure he got Wilson’s attention during the coach’s visits to practice. He walked up in front of Wilson and reached down and slapped the ground repeatedly while screaming, “I’m here!”
“He let it be known that you better recognize who I am,” Wilson said. “I loved it.”
Mathieu received scholarship offers from schools such as Florida International, Hampton and Louisiana-Monroe, but LSU was the only big-name program to offer him a scholarship.
Recruited by then-Tigers assistant and current Memphis coach Larry Porter, he received his offer after impressing at one of LSU’s summer camps the summer before his senior year.
But when Mathieu later attended camps at Alabama and Tennessee, neither offered him a scholarship. They didn’t realize he was better in games than camps.
“His biggest attribute is what you can’t measure and that’s his heart and desire to be a great player,” Wilson said.
After the snubs by Alabama and Tennessee, Mathieu committed to LSU in July 2009. He hasn’t forgotten the slights and carries them with him.
“Those guys felt like they didn’t need me,” he said. “It gave me a chip on my shoulder.”
When Mathieu first arrived at LSU last summer, his teammates didn’t know a lot about him either. But that didn’t last long.
In LSU’s 7-on-7 sessions, he quickly proved himself as a playmaker by intercepting a pass that then starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson attempted to throw to wide receiver Rueben Randle.
“That caught our eye,” Reid said.
After that, then-LSU star cornerback Patrick Peterson began to work with Mathieu.
When Peterson left early for April’s NFL draft, in which he was selected fifth overall, Mathieu inherited his number, No. 7. Now, some think Mathieu may even be better than Peterson.
“He’s really special,” said an NFL scout at Saturday’s game. “You saw him. What else can you say?”
Plenty if you ask former Buffalo Bills linebacker and Pro Bowler Darryl Talley about Mathieu. The former West Virginia standout was at Saturday’s game in honor of his coming induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in December.
“I’m impressed,” Talley said. “He’s a good ballhawk. From what I can see, he hits people when he gets to the ball. He’s not afraid of contact. That’s what you want out of a defensive back.”
But Mathieu’s willingness to tackle wasn’t lost on Talley. He’s played with and against plenty of lockdown cornerbacks who shy away from contact.
“Trust me, most don’t want to do that,” Talley said of tackling. “This kid seems not to mind.”
Mathieu, however, does mind his Honey Badger nickname. He doesn’t hate it, but also doesn’t love it.
His teammates though have resorted to just calling him the Honey Badger.
“He’s making a great name for himself,” Taylor said.
It’s one called the Honey Badger. The rest of college football better get used to hearing it.