The touchdown that will forever etch Skyler Green into LSU lore is not the one he remembers as his favorite in his burgeoning career as a Tiger.
When most LSU fans think of Green, what comes to mind is his thrilling, game-breaking touchdown against Georgia in September. With just 1:22 left on the clock in a 10-10 tied score between two top-10 SEC teams, Green sped past all Bulldog defenders to open himself up for a 34-yard throw from quarterback Matt Mauck. Green's catch and score sent the LSU-record crowd of 92,251 into a frenzy and set the tone for a season that found the Tigers rolling to a 12-1 record, SEC title, and, if things go right, the national championship Sunday night.
While the catch, captured in full-page glory in Sports Illustrated the following week, is "something that I will always remember," Green says, his first collegiate touchdown is the one that retains the top spot among his personal highlights. Green's favorite came in a game most Tiger fans would rather forget, a 21-20 loss to Arkansas in Little Rock in November 2002. The game opened up with Green, then a relatively obscure freshman, scoring on a 63-yard touchdown from quarterback Marcus Randall.
That touchdown "means more to me than any other play," says Green, sitting in the media room inside Tiger Stadium in the days leading up to the national championship. His youthful face and bright eyes glow in the spotlight of the national media presence around him, as reporters clamor for his attention. The 2002 touchdown is special to the 19-year-old, called "Sky" by friends, because it served as a precursor to the accolades of 2003. His first touchdown, Green says, "showed people, 'Well, maybe this kid can have a good year next year.'"
Describing his 2003 breakout season as "a good year" is a humble understatement by Green. All-American and All-SEC kudos notwithstanding, a quick glance at Green's stats reveals a remarkable year. In the second game of the season, a 59-13 thrashing of Arizona, Green raced 65 yards on his first collegiate punt return for a touchdown. An 80-yard punt return in the Tigers' sole loss of the season to Florida served as the only bright spot for that game. While five touchdowns came to Green this season as a wide receiver, he was named to the All-American and All-SEC squads as a return-man on both punts and kickoffs. As a receiver, in fact, Green is typically LSU's third option behind seasoned stars Michael Clayton, a junior and holder of the LSU record for career touchdown receptions with 21, and Devery Henderson, who led the team with 11 touchdown catches this season and is perhaps best known for the "Bluegrass Miracle," the last-second 75-yard touchdown that beat Kentucky on the last play of the game in 2002 and later won ESPN's "Play of the Year."
Stepping into a number of contributing roles for LSU this year because of other players' injuries and recognition of his talents and maturity, Green has handled the football in all 13 games this season in a variety of ways. He has rushed five times for a total of 68 yards and returned 22 punts for 436 yards and nine kickoffs for 188 yards. Combined, Green's efforts add up to 82 touches for 1,188 yards and seven touchdowns, five of those receiving and two on returns. He led the entire nation in punt-return average for most of the season, averaging 19.8 yards per return. The 436 yards on punt returns marks the fifth-highest single-season total in LSU history. With three more yards in the Sugar Bowl, he'll move into fourth place; with 30 more, he'll pass Young Bussey into third place.
Against the backdrop of a remarkable LSU season that ranks as one of the best in a storied, century-plus tradition, Green has grown in leaps and bounds. One big difference, he says, is maturity. "The guys in high school are kinda joking guys," he explains. "This is serious. It's because of maturity and the difference in the guys around you. I kinda goofed off my first year; but as time went on, I matured and played better, with less mistakes and more big plays. That comes through in the games."
It came through during the Georgia game, in which Green scored the winning touchdown. Earlier in the game, he dropped a few easy passes, mental mistakes that could be confidence-shakers for many young athletes playing in a high-pressure game before a national TV audience. "Skyler had some drops earlier in the game, so I know that touchdown catch was one he really wanted," says quarterback Mauck. "It was a huge catch and a huge confidence builder."
As for the overall impact of that now-legendary catch, Mauck surmises, "Well, we beat Georgia," knowing in hindsight that the Sept. 20 victory worked as a springboard for LSU's march to the Sugar Bowl.
"Skyler's a great athlete, a great player," says LSU head coach Nick Saban. "His speed is a huge weapon for us; it helped us win several games this season."
The ability of Saban, now in his fourth year at the helm, to recruit the state's top high school talents is one of the keys to his success. A traditionally dominant program, LSU was not performing up to expectations for much of the 1990s. Under Saban, the Tigers have won the SEC championship twice, produced 12 first-team All-Americans, been to a bowl game every year and sent 12 players to the NFL. The upswing in success can be attributed to players who decided to stay at home. In years past, many top local players went outside state lines to schools such as Florida State, Texas and Tennessee, but Saban has managed to reverse that trend.
Green is an example of Saban's recruiting success. Born in Houma and raised in Westwego, he was a highly-touted talent while a quarterback for coach Wayne Meyers at Higgins High School. Operating out of the wish-bone formation, typically set up in football offenses to capitalize on a exceptionally athletic quarterback, Green during his senior season rushed for 2,174 yards on 194 carries. He was named to the first-team All-State and was MVP of his district and of the All-New Orleans Metro team. (The inclusion on several high school all-star teams means the upcoming championship game vs. the University of Oklahoma in the Nokia Sugar Bowl won't be the first game for Green under the bright lights of the Louisiana Superdome; "I've played there before," Green says with a shrug.)
As a stand-out in high school, Green was named to The Times-Picayune's Top 15 Blue Chip list of top area players, and even more exposure was provided by his selection to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Super Southern 100. College recruiters from all over the country knocked on the door of Leroy and Gladies Green, including those from Nebraska, the team Green grew up watching and paying the most attention to. (Strangely, Green says he was never a devoted fan of the Saints or LSU, despite the fact that two cousins, Jarvis and Howard Green, played for LSU before both headed to the NFL). Alabama, West Virginia and others also came calling, but Green chose LSU because "of the way people treat you here, and you can tell this is a place where football is exciting." Added into this is the fact that some family members had played for LSU and " could tell me the great background of the program here." Another bonus is the fact that his parents -- who travel to every game, either in Baton Rouge or away -- could attend games easily.
Green believes the decision to pick LSU was the right one. "I am where I want to be," says the history major, who admits that playing in the NFL one day is "the ultimate goal."
"My focus is on school and football," he adds. "I just want to be at this great school, graduate and finish everything the right way."
For Skyler Green, winning the national championship in his hometown in front of family and friends would finish his stellar, breakthrough 2003 season the right way.
All the pressure and hoopla surrounding LSU's first chance for a national championship in nearly 50 years isn't getting to Green or his teammates, he says. Calling the atmosphere "fun," Green says, "We don't let [the attention] pressure us in any way. We just stay focused, try to keep our heads on straight and do the right things to, hopefully, win a national championship."
There's no denying, however, that the prospect of playing on college football's biggest stage at home isn't thrilling. "Aw, man, it's gonna be exciting," says Green, whose big-play ability is a key reason why the Tigers landed in the Sugar Bowl. "And if I have the chance to make it even more exciting, I will."
- Steve Franz, courtesy LSU Sports Information Office
- Hold that Tiger: Skyler Green's breakaway speed has been a "huge weapon" throughout LSU's championship season, says LSU head coach Nick Saban.