UH rally falls short

The Cougars come back but not far enough in loss to SMU; UT, A&M both suf­fer late losses.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BRIAN T. SMITH brian.smith@chron.com twit­ter.com/chron­bri­an­smith

Ball-hunt­ing safety Tyrann Mathieu has been quite the catch for Tex­ans’ de­fense

Tyrann Mathieu makes it easy to be­lieve in the Tex­ans. Re­ally be­lieve. A for­mer All-Pro safety who bet on him­self and a 4-12 team at the same time last March, leav­ing mil­lions of dol­lars and ex­tra con­tract years on the free-agency ta­ble in the be­lief that 2018 could truly be spe­cial in Hous­ton.

A proud, vet­eran leader of an in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent 5-3 squad, which an­swered a back­ward 0-3 start with gritty Sun­days, over­time vic­to­ries and five con­sec­u­tive wins.

“We knew the kind of group we had, the kind of po­ten­tial we had,” Mathieu said. “We re­ally just didn’t play our best foot­ball. I don’t think we still have played our best foot­ball yet.”

The piled-up statis­tics at­tached to No. 32 tell you how im­por­tant the Honey Badger has been: 46 com­bined tack­les (38 solo), two in­ter­cep­tions, two sacks, five passes de­fensed, three tack­les for loss, one fum­ble re­cov­ery.

With the AFC South-lead­ing Tex­ans en­ter­ing Week 9 at Den­ver on a play­off pace, the 26year-old Mathieu is play­ing at a Pro Bowl level for a de­fense that ranks ninth in the NFL in aver­age points al­lowed (20.9) and 12th in pass­ing yards (239.8).

Sim­ply men­tion Mathieu to Bill O’Brien and the Tex­ans coach ac­knowl­edges that the sixth-year de­fender “means the world to me.”

“I just think that the guy — in ad­di­tion to be­ing a re­ally good, tough foot­ball player — he’s a very bright guy, he cares about his team­mates, he’s been through a lot in his life,” O’Brien said. “He has no fear. He brings a great at­ti­tude every sin­gle day to the locker room, and he’s been a great ad­di­tion to our team.”

Mem­o­ries and mo­ti­va­tion

Great at­ti­tude. Cares about his team­mates. Tough. No fear.

The words mat­ter even more than the stats.

There’s a re­al­ness to Mathieu that makes him elec­tric on the field and in­spi­ra­tional off it.

A telling tweet from early Feb­ru­ary is pinned to the top of his Twit­ter pro­file: “I’m let­ting my scars bleed all 2018.”

This post from Oct. 19 — when the Tex­ans were 3-3; two days be­fore a tough road vic­tory at Jack­sonville — cap­tures it all: “6 years ago, I was ar­rested, kick out of school, en­tered a re­hab, got a call my best friend got mur­dered, stick dropped, most of the peo­ple I thought loved me turned their back on me, only a few cared. I’m here to tell you fall for­ward, never know what your fu­ture has in store.” Fall for­ward. Mathieu used that same, uplift­ing term when I spoke with him in March in an NRG Sta­dium hall­way, af­ter he signed a oneyear, $7 mil­lion deal with the Tex­ans. Seven months later, the for­mer Louisiana State stand­out has been ev­ery­thing his new team was hop­ing for and more.

Be­fore De­shaun Wat­son threw for five touch­downs on na­tional TV, Mathieu gath­ered his team­mates to­gether dur­ing a stan­dard pregame hype-up hud­dle.

Noth­ing is stan­dard with Mathieu, though.

And if you need a lit­tle daily in­spi­ra­tion in your life, all you need to do is hit play on a video and let the Honey Badger in­stantly pump you up.

“Do y’all feel what’s in the air right now, man? Y’all feel what we’re about to do right now?” screamed Mathieu, his voice and in­ten­sity ris­ing as a mi­cro­phone crack­led with dis­tor­tion. “We’ve been ramp­ing that (stuff ) up and it’s per­fect tim­ing . ... We about to show the whole world that we not (mess­ing) around. We re­ally liv­ing like that.”

Fi­nal score: Tex­ans 42, Dol­phins 23.

“Every time I played against him and watch him on tape, the first thing that comes out from the re­ceivers’ room to the meet­ings rooms is he’s side­line to side­line,” said new Tex­ans wide re­ceiver De­mary­ius Thomas, who’ll re­turn to Den­ver to face Case Keenum’s Bron­cos on Sun­day. “You never know where he’s go­ing to be. The in­ten­sity he brings to the game, not ev­ery­body brings that in­ten­sity. You know if you’re play­ing against him.”

Open book

Astros third base­man Alex Breg­man — who also starred at LSU and throws away the pro ath­lete cookie-cut­ter fil­ter — gave Mathieu a pub­lic shoutout Fri­day, with the No. 3 Tigers set to host No. 1 Alabama the night be­fore the Tex­ans face the Bron­cos.

Mathieu took time to tweet “GO VOTE!!!” be­fore Tues­day’s elec­tions.

And when a fan tagged Mathieu on so­cial me­dia, say­ing they “try to have @Mathieu_Era en­ergy ev­ery­day,” the fan fa­vorite replied with tongue-in-cheek self re­flec­tion.

“High stan­dard. Even I can’t keep up some days,” Mathieu tweeted.

He is ab­so­lutely him­self and opens up his world more than most.

“For me, it was al­ways im­por­tant to kind of show your scars, right?” Mathieu said. “And ob­vi­ously not hide when you’re go­ing through things — maybe some­body’s go­ing through some­thing sim­i­lar. I love the idea of cel­e­brat­ing my team­mates, cel­e­brat­ing my fam­ily, what­ever it may be. I just want peo­ple to know that I’m in it with them and I care just as much for them.”

Set­ting an ex­am­ple

Mathieu’s love for lift­ing oth­ers up traces back to high school.

Grow­ing up, he al­ways had been an of­fen­sive player and was tran­si­tion­ing to cor­ner­back. A coach be­lieved Mathieu was the most tal­ented ath­lete on the team and no­ticed other play­ers grav­i­tat­ing to­ward him. The only prob­lem? Mathieu was per­son­ally fall­ing back­ward in­stead of blaz­ing a path.

“I don’t think at the time I was lead­ing those guys the right way,” he said. “I didn’t take foot­ball se­ri­ously. I didn’t take my school­work se­ri­ously. A lot of things was a game for me. And (the coach) was kind of like one of the first peo­ple to help me re­al­ize that a lot of peo­ple are fol­low­ing me. … I kind of held on to that con­cept through­out my life. Some days are bet­ter than oth­ers, but I just try my best.”

J.J. Watt wanted Mathieu to be a Texan be­fore Brian Gaine was hired as the team’s new gen­eral man­ager. Mathieu was one of Wat­son’s all-time fa­vorite col­lege play­ers and is now loved by the team, the young quar­ter­back said.

“He’s been through a lot of dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions,” Wat­son said. “You can ask him ques­tions about his life story. But the things he’s been through, I’ve seen him over­come it. … See­ing what he’s be­come and now how he is as a man and as a fa­ther, it’s been awe­some to be around him.”

Hop­ing to stay put

Mathieu is real enough to ac­knowl­edge that his new team hasn’t ac­com­plished any­thing yet.

The Tex­ans dug their own hole and needed back-to-back over­time luck just to draw even. Sun­day is an­other se­ri­ous test and the tough­est part of their sea­son still awaits. Mathieu’s sec­ond-half view? “To be hon­est, kind of mak­ing it per­sonal, so you can make your­self have an ad­van­tage, make your­self get up for it,” he said. “It’s been fun the last few weeks, win­ning. But at the halfway mark, we know these games mat­ter the most.”

Counted out and left for dead. Mis­takes and set­backs, fol­lowed by re­silience and redemp­tion.

There’s a lot of Mathieu in these Tex­ans.

If the wins con­tinue and Kirby Drive keeps feel­ing like a foot­ball home, he hopes his time in Hous­ton lasts longer than a sin­gle sea­son.

“No doubt,” he said. “Just try to do my part and hop­ing that ev­ery­thing plays out for the bet­ter.”

When the 2018 Tex­ans have been at their best, they’ve lis­tened to Mathieu’s words and fol­lowed his lead.

“He goes out there and makes plays, whether it’s a sack, whether it’s a pick. He finds a way to get to the ball,” Watt said. “Any time you do that, you’re go­ing to help build the team up. And I think that when you do it with a lit­tle bit of swag­ger, a lit­tle bit of en­ergy, it ob­vi­ously does the same thing. … We’re very lucky to have a guy like that. Hope­fully, he can stay here for quite a while.”

Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

In his first year with the Tex­ans, Tyrann Mathieu has been a high-en­ergy de­fender on the field and an in­spi­ra­tional leader off it.

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