Staff Photo: Jason Braverman LSU celebrates the SEC Championship following the Tigers' win over Georgia on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA -- For the first quarter of Saturday's Southeastern Conference Championship Game, Georgia seemed in total command.
But apparently, LSU and its "Honey Badger" really didn't care.
For the second time in as many weeks, Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu helped the top-ranked Tigers erase an early double-digit deficit as LSU caught fire in the second half and earned its way into the BCS Championship game with a 42-10 victory.
Mathieu, whose 92-yard punt return sparked LSU's comeback win over then-No. 3 Arkansas last week, was named the title game's Most Valuable Player with 119 punt-return yards -- including a 62-yard touchdown -- plus four tackles and a fumble recovery to help LSU snap Georgia's 10-game winning streak.
Then the 5-foot-9, 175-pound sophomore gave the Tigers (13-0) just the spark they needed in scoring 35 unanswered points -- including three touchdowns by Kenny Hilliard -- in the second half after 12th-ranked Georgia (10-3) was seemingly in control throughout of the first half.
The Bulldogs held LSU without a first down and to just 12 yards in the entire first half, including minus-6 on the ground, yet led just 10-7 at intermission before the Tigers erupted for 225 yards and 35 points in the final 30 minutes.
"I'm very proud of this team," LSU coach Les Miles said. "This team was down 14 to Arkansas (last week) and down 10 (this week) ... and this team comes back and rebounds and never are they out of it.
"I'll be real honest. I don't want to go back to that. I'd just assume take the lead and start that way. But again, it's a quality team and a team that will compete. ... It was just a matter of time that this team would rebound."
Georgia got the mostly red-clad Georgia Dome crowd of 74,515 into the game early, holding LSU to a three-and-out on the game's opening possession and then getting a 44-yard completion from Aaron Murray to Tavarres King to move the ball deep into the Tiger territory. The drive stalled and the Bulldogs had to settle for Blair Walsh's 40-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead just 3:15 after the opening kickoff.
They got the crowd yelling even louder when Alec Ogletree leapt high in the air to snag a bold early onside kick near midfield.
But once again, Georgia had to settle for another field goal attempt when the drive stalled -- this time, when Malcolm Mitchell dropped what appeared to be a sure 28-yard TD pass from Murray on third down -- and came away empty when Walsh's 45-yard attempt went wide right.
It was one of several drops of what could have been big gains for Georgia in the first half, including one that sailed through King's hands in the end zone on the Bulldogs' first possession.
"Definitely with a team like LSU, you have to take points when you can get them," said Murray, who finished the day 16 of 40 with an interception for 163 yards and a TD. "We definitely missed a couple shots early in the game, which would've been nice -- to get a lead. But we didn't execute on those, and they did a great job of stopping us throughout the game."
However, the Bulldogs did cash with 42 seconds left in the first quarter when Aron White snagged a 12-yard touchdown pass from Murray to push their advantage to 10-0, and it seemed like Georgia was firmly in control.
That's when the "Honey Badger" came out of his den to help put the Tigers to get back into the game.
Peachtree Ridge grad Drew Butler boomed a 59-yard punt to drive Mathieu back to his own 38-yard line, but he zipped his way through several would-be tackles picked up a few blocks downfield and raced 62 yards for a score that pulled LSU to within 10-7 with 5:48 left in the first half.
"Obviously, we'd gotten off to a slow start," Mathieu said. "So, I felt like I needed to change the momentum of the game. I just tried to make one guy miss and get down the field."
Still, while they weren't able to put as much distance between themselves and LSU as they could have, the Bulldogs took that three-point lead into intermission.
But it didn't last long into the second half -- just 2:09 into the third quarter, to be exact -- and once again, Mathieu was in the middle of the action.
After Michael Brockers and Barkevious Mingo dislodged the ball from a scrambling Murray on Georgia's third play of its first possession, the New Orleans native pounced on the fumble to set LSU up at the Bulldogs' 26-yard line.
Following a 5-yard illegal substitution penalty on Georgia, the Tigers then picked up its initial first down of the game on Jordan Jefferson's 6-yard completion to Rueben Randle before Kenny Hilliard sliced through the Bulldogs' defense for a 15-yard TD run that gave the Tigers their first lead of the game at 14-10 with 12:51 left in the third quarter.
And still more magic from Mathieu helped them increase the lead just over two minutes later. This time, he slipped as many as eight different tackles in a 47-yard punt return to set LSU up at the Georgia 17.
Four plays later, Hilliard found the end zone again -- this time, from 4 yards out -- to push the Tigers' advantage to 21-10 with 10:37 left in the period.
Tharold Simon then intercepted a Murray pass at the LSU 30, setting up a 10-play, 70-yard drive that ended with Hillard's third TD of the day -- this time on an 8-yard swing pass from Jefferson -- to make the score 28-10 with 3:45 left in the quarter, and the Tigers never looked back.
Hilliard finished the day with 72 yards with two touchdowns on eight carries, plus the 8-yard TD reception, while Alfred Blue added 94 yards and a score on eight carries.
And after Georgia gained 134 yards of total offense in the first quarter, the Bulldogs were held to just 162 the rest of the game.