December 15, 2011
If Tyrann Mathieu beats the odds and wins the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night it will merely be lagniappe.
The fact that he was invited to New York as one of five finalists for the most prestigious college football player of the year award is remarkable enough.
It’s remarkable because the Heisman usually goes to a quarterback or a running back, and Mathieu is a defensive back and special teams player for LSU.
It’s remarkable because the Heisman usually goes to a junior or a senior and Mathieu is a sophomore.
It’s remarkable because Mathieu went through a five-game stretch that included a one-game suspension for violating team rules and didn’t include any Heisman résumé-bolstering plays.
But Mathieu has shown that he can pick his spots for spectacular plays as well as he picks holes as a dynamic punt returner. He thrust himself to the forefront of the Heisman picture with a series of highlight-making plays during the first month of the season, and finished with a big kick the last two games.
He started with a strip and score against Oregon in the marquee game of opening weekend, made an interception that set up an LSU touchdown on national TV against West Virginia, caused and returned a fumble for a touchdown against Kentucky in the Tigers’ first game at No. 1, and made a diving interception in the end zone against Florida on national TV.
After the mid-season lull, Mathieu finished with a flourish as LSU closed in on a trip to the BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers trailed No. 3 Arkansas, 14-0, but Mathieu tied the score at 14 with a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown.
He caused two fumbles and recovered one of them to trigger a 41-17 blowout of the Razorbacks.
In the SEC Championship Game eight days later, he jump-started a sputtering team that trailed Georgia, 10-0, by returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown. He recovered a fumble that led to the go-ahead touchdown, then made a spectacular 46-yard punt return that set up the next score during a second-half avalanche that produced a 42-10 final.
In those last two games, Mathieu again took advantage of the national spotlight with a series of game-turning plays for the unanimous No. 1 team in the country.
If he had had the same impact as a quarterback or running back, especially as an underclassman, he’d be the man to beat for the Heisman instead of a late-arriving darkhorse.
If Mathieu were to win the 76th Heisman he would be just the sixth winner who wasn’t a running back or a quarterback and the first not to have played an offensive down. He’d also be just the fourth sophomore to win the award.
But even if Mathieu leaves New York empty-handed, he’s already left an indelible imprint by being the most dynamic player for this history-making team.