- Fifteen years ago, Georgia and LSU met in Baton Rouge with stakes similar to Saturday's meeting. What ensued was one of the most memorable—and significant—afternoons in Death Valley history.
BATON ROUGE, La. — Over the summer, Skyler Green called LSU with a request. The phones at the LSU football operations center are always buzzing with alums wanting something: tickets, box seats, apparel and, for those still playing, equipment. Green’s request was different. “I told them I wanted to be an honorary captain for the Georgia game,” says Green.
Fifteen years ago, on Sept. 20, 2003, Green’s 34-yard touchdown reception in the final minutes against Georgia delivered the Tigers an epic win that many in south Louisiana still believe is the single greatest day game in the history of Tiger Stadium, a place known for its electric Saturday nights and notorious for its humid Saturday afternoons. That September showdown in 2003 featuring the previous two SEC champions set the home attendance record (92,251) and ultimately ushered in the most glorious decade the LSU football program has ever seen, in which the Tigers won at least 10 games in seven seasons, claimed three SEC championships and won two national titles.
The 17–10 victory was four years in the making for up-and-coming LSU coach Nick Saban—a win that justified his Process well before his dominant days in Tuscaloosa—and set the course for a year that resulted in his first national championship. “That Georgia game put LSU on the map,” says Matt Mauck, the Tigers’ starting quarterback in 2003. “It was our coming-out party.”
LSU had never experienced the sustained success and championship hardware it would revel in over the next few years. Johnny Vaught and Ole Miss consistently beat the Tigers in the days of leather helmets, Alabama and Bear Bryant reigned in the 1970s and ’80s, and Steve Spurrier and Florida bludgeoned them for another decade. “To me, it was the game that turned the tide,” says Michael Bonnette, an LSU graduate and administrator at the school for the last 25 years. “It proved we belonged.”
It was a thrilling, defensive slugfest that swung on, of all things, a busted play. Green, now a 34-year-old father of four living in New Orleans, will return to Tiger Stadium on Saturday for a game against those same Bulldogs, at that same kickoff time (2:30 p.m.), on that same TV network (CBS), with similar stakes involved (LSU is No. 13 in the AP poll; Georgia is No. 2) and a comparable months-long buildup in Baton Rouge (which only had a little luster taken off of it after LSU’s loss at Florida last week).
The game is sold out. The nearly 9,000 hotel rooms in East Baton Rouge Parish are almost booked, and game officials have increased security personnel by about 20%. It’s as good a time as ever for LSU and second-year head coach Ed Orgeron to once again ruin Georgia’s season and, maybe, announce their return to the national championship race after years of mediocrity—just like they did 15 years ago. As Green says, “It’s going to bring back a lot of memories.”
At the original Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar, Sept. 19, 2003, is still referred to by two words. “Black Friday,” says Brandon Landry, the founder and CEO of the sports bar that now has 24 locations in four states, including a second in Baton Rouge. Landry opened his first Walk-On’s a five-minute walk from Tiger Stadium, 11 days before LSU hosted Georgia in 2003. The day before the game, Walk-On’s drew such a crowd of pre-partying Louisianians that chaos ensued within the new establishment. Lines were out the door. The kitchen was backed up. Bartenders were frazzled, and the restaurant ran out of the one thing no sports bar should run out of: French fries. “We got our butt kicked,” Landry says.
The hype machine for the 2003 LSU-Georgia game began well before the season started, and it only escalated after the two teams beat their first three opponents by a combined score of 233–44. ESPN College GameDay originated from Baton Rouge that weekend for the first time in six years, and more than 400 media outlets requested credentials, the most ever at that point in Tiger Stadium history, Bonnette says. To accommodate overflow television personnel, the LSU stats crew was bumped out of its normal booth in the press box. In the stands, $7 student tickets were selling for more than $200 apiece.
A column that week in the hometown newspaper, The Advocate, crowned the game LSU’s biggest since the days of coach Paul Dietzel and his crew of Chinese Bandits in the late 1950s. Fans craved a consistent winner and a national title contender. The 2001 team, Saban’s second, won the SEC but couldn’t claim the consistency part—it started that season 4–3. The program had spent just one of the previous 40 seasons in the national championship race (1987), which had fostered a fan base that former athletic director Skip Bertman says couldn’t even buy up its ticket allotment to the 2000 Peach Bowl without administrators convincing south Louisiana businesses to buy in bulk.
“We didn’t even know how to distribute tickets for the  SEC championship game,” Bertman says. “My [predecessor] and others in the department didn’t think we could ever win the SEC [West].”
In his Monday news conference that week, Saban downplayed the game so much—“The sky will not fall” if we lose, he said—that the local newspaper splashed a headline in massive font across its sports front: “What big game?” Behind the scenes, Saban kept the week’s preparation the same as any other, says Kirk Doll, who served as linebackers coach at LSU in 2003 and is now the special teams coordinator at East Carolina. Doll only now admits that, yes, “there was a little extra hot sauce on things.” The scene in the LSU training room that week was unusual, recalls Jack Marucci, the team’s head trainer for the last 24 years. Players filtered in and out with playbooks in hand while discussing, not girls or party plans, but football. “I knew we were locked in,” Marucci says. “They were talking about personnel matchups.”
The matchups were irresistible for college football fans; Georgia’s All-America defensive end David Pollack would take on an LSU offensive line that included names like Andrew Whitworth and Stephen Peterman; cannon-armed quarterback David Greene against an LSU secondary that included Corey Webster, LaRon Landry and Travis Daniels. The offensive game plan, Doll says, was to use the run game to play keep-away from Georgia coach Mark Richt’s explosive offense. LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp hoped to disrupt Greene’s passing attack with pressure, calling a corner blitz on Georgia’s first offensive snap. “There was confusion, and both corners came and we completely uncovered the Z (receiver),” Muschamp, now the head coach at South Carolina, says while laughing. “Thank goodness the [quarterback’s] read was to the other side or else we would have started by giving up an 80-yard touchdown.”
Well before that opening play, Walk-On’s was crowded with thousands of fans. The restaurant made about $35,000 on its first game day, Landry says. A game day in 2018 brings in about $100,000, a byproduct of LSU football’s upward trajectory since 2003. “How ironic is this?” asks Landry, a one-time walk-on with the LSU basketball team. “If we beat Georgia, we’re sitting here in a good spot. I mean, we’ve got a tough schedule, but you just feel like something is aligning just like it did that year. In ’03, it was, ‘Can we really win a national championship? Is LSU in that ballpark?’ Now, our program has shown that it can. Even though we’ve had some less-than-par years, the stars are aligning.”
Former Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway had experienced LSU night games in the past, with a rowdy crowd creating a venue so loud at field level that Bryant once described the experience as “being inside of a drum.” He had always been told that day games were different, more subdued and tame. So, as Georgia’s team buses arrived at Tiger Stadium around 12:30 in the afternoon, he did not expect to see a man’s bare ass. He was wrong. “People were mooning,” says Callaway, now the offensive line coach at USC. “They were lined up out there from the bus to the locker room, hollering and acting like fools.”
Beyond its importance to the 2003 national title, LSU’s victory announced to a national audience that 1) the Tigers could win a big game under the sun and 2) Death Valley could rock in the daylight just as it does under the stars. Back then, LSU’s reputation in day games was such that the Associated Press, in its projection column the week of the game, cited the kick time as the reason it had chosen Georgia to win.
Fans weren’t the only ones revved up for the big game. Saban and his staff riled up the players, too, posting flyers intended to motivate them in the locker room. On the flyers was a photo of Richt with a quote attributed to him that the coach contends he never said: “The only Death Valley I know is in Clemson, South Carolina.”
Schematically, Saban and Muschamp’s plan worked. The Tigers blitzed nearly 40 times that Saturday, sacking Greene four times, deflecting seven passes and snapping his talked-about streak of attempts without an interception at 176. Callaway, to this day, is still bemoaning two misfires from his quarterback. Georgia’s offensive staff found a weakness in LSU during scouting that week: When an opponent crossed midfield, Saban would send a blitz and sometimes leave a running back free down the middle of the field. It happened twice that day. “We complete either one, it’d be a different ballgame,” Callaway says.
Meanwhile, on the outside of Tiger Stadium, the school estimated that 150,000 people—60,000 more than the stadium held in 2003—were on campus tailgating ,starting as early as Friday. Some pulled all-nighters, the drinks flowing, gumbo bubbling and jambalaya stewing in black cauldrons. Just outside the stadium, a group of LSU fans toppled a port-o-potty with a Georgia fan inside. His injuries were serious enough that he needed medical treatment, and Bertman later mailed an apology letter to the man and his family.
For years, the reputation of LSU fans nationally had centered on aggression, hostility and inebriation. Bertman recalls some fans setting fire to an Auburn van in 2001. It was normal for others to drop drinks onto people from the third deck. During a thorough combing of Tiger Stadium after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, law enforcement found liquor bottles taped to the back of dozens of seats—some of them empty from the previous game, others full for the next one.
LSU began to curtail that behavior starting in the early 2000s, coinciding with two things: the Tigers winning and sweeping security enhancements that Bertman championed. “It goes back to when we thought we were losers,” Bertman says of the behavior. “You don’t have a lot of wins and don’t feel good about your program, so you do some bad things. Those things don’t happen anymore.”
Law enforcement began monitoring the student section with a 180-degree camera, a police booth was set up in the Tiger Stadium press box and officers began dressing undercover in the opposing team’s apparel. By 2003, the culture began to change, says Mike Barnett, a now-retired member of the local sheriff’s department who headed Tiger Stadium security for years. On the day of the Georgia game, Barnett’s undercover officers, all clad in red, returned to the precinct without issue—well, almost. “They came back fat and half-drunk,” he laughs. “LSU fans were feeding them and giving them drinks!”
Tyson Browning never understood the name given to the screen pass he took 93 yards against LSU, but 15 years later he has not forgotten it. “Texas Crack,” he says. With the Bulldogs down 10–3 and under five minutes left in the game, Callaway and Richt called Texas Crack, and Browning remembers the field “parting like the Red Sea.” On the LSU sideline, an angry Saban approached his 32-year-old defensive coordinator. “I got my ass ripped,” Muschamp remembers.
What happened next was bizarre and also awe-inspiring, those affiliated with the program say. Moments after Georgia’s extra point tied the game at 10, Tiger Stadium began to chant the same three letters over and over again in unison: L-S-U, L-S-U, L-S-U. It was a defining moment in the LSU fan evolution, a don’t-give-up mentality that LSU’s head coach had preached, through the media, for years. “He uses you people in the media all the time,” Bertman says of Saban. “‘Go 60 minutes with us. Don’t give up! Don’t look at the clock!’ I was up in my box as the AD. My face was sour and I was looking out and all the sudden from my left in the student section, they started to clap. One person, two, three and then thousands started, ‘L-S-U! L-S-U!’”
Charles Hanagriff, a longtime LSU radio personality, saw his first football game in Tiger Stadium in 1982. He had never seen anything like that: “You rarely see Tiger Stadium erupt like that after something bad has happened. It was part of what Saban was trying to get across here. ‘We’ve got to be all in all the time.’ The place was as loud as when LSU did something good.”
On the field, players responded. Devery Henderson returned the ensuing kickoff 48 yards, and the Tigers marched to the Georgia 34-yard line. Facing a third-and-four with 90 seconds left in the game, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher called “Laser Pick,” a play designed for Green to scramble the defensive back covering Michael Clayton by running a short in-route. Clayton, the motion man, would cross paths with him on a quick out-route. Green didn’t hear the second part of the play call. “I didn’t hear the ‘pick’ in ‘Laser Pick,’” Green says. “I ran what Laser was. Laser was I ran a deep corner route.”
Because of the short down and distance, Georgia’s defense ran a zone blitz expecting a quick pass and hoping to pressure the quarterback. Mauck rolled out in the direction of Clayton and Green, as the play was designed, but arrived there confused. Clayton was covered, and he couldn’t find his second option. “I come out and think, ‘Where the hell’s Skyler?’” says Mauck, now a dentist in Denver. “Then I caught a glimpse of him deep and threw it.”
In coverage, Georgia cornerback Tim Jennings assumed the Tigers would throw short. “I peeked back and saw the ball going over my head, and that place went crazy,” says Jennings, now living in Georgia after a 10-year NFL career. “I’ve kind of had a hatred for Skyler ever since then.” Green leaped for the ball even though he didn’t have to, his way of securing the catch on a day when he dropped two passes. He popped on the turf, saw the referee’s touchdown signal and recalls screaming three words: “Hell yeah, baby!”
Green’s involvement in LSU’s offense to that point wasn’t as heavy as it should have been. The sophomore struggled to learn Fisher’s playbook so much that he needed one-on-one playbook lessons from receivers coach Stan Hixon. “Nick [Saban] kept on saying, ‘We need to get him the ball, need to get him the ball.’ Jimbo and I kept saying, ‘Well, we would if he knew what he was doing,’” Hixon, currently an assistant at Temple, says now while laughing about it.
Down the street at Walk-On’s, Landry had a full house of ticketless fans. “We were trying to keep the inside clean and classy,” Landry remembers, “but when Skyler Green caught the ball, there was more beer flying and cheese fries … People were throwing oysters against the mini blinds.” A few minutes after the score, Webster picked off Greene to end it, and the Tigers celebrated a triumph that gave LSU the confidence it needed to make the national title run. “You think about the great Tiger Stadium games, and you almost always think of the great night games,” says Hanagriff. “I still believe it’s the most significant day win in Tiger Stadium history.”
Mauck says the win did more for recruiting than anything else. He remembers the important prospects present—including Ryan Perrilloux, Early Doucet and Chevis Jackson—who would later help the Tigers to two SEC title game appearances and the 2007 championship under coach Les Miles. LSU’s campus buzzed after the game. Hanagriff described it as a Mardi Gras scene, and Green was right in the middle of it, at his cousin’s RV in the school’s busiest tailgate area. “Ate a lot of food, partied with some family and”—he laughs—“drank some beers.” Kirk Herbstreit, on campus for College GameDay, partied with Landry at his new restaurant. The two played pop-a-shot until about 3 a.m. “There was something about that day,” Bonnette says. “It will forever be remembered as the day that got us where we are.”
And now, maybe, it has come full circle. A program that has regressed to its historic mean—eight to nine wins, a nice bowl game and mid-tier SEC finish—is in position to storm back into the championship spotlight with three Top 25 home games in the next month that could make the Florida loss feel like years ago: No. 2 Georgia, No. 25 Mississippi State and No. 1 Alabama. “Every LSU coach has had his game,” Bertman says. “Nick had Georgia in 2003. Les had Florida in 2007. This Georgia game could be it for Ed.”
The first step in a return to glory, the chance to spoil UGA’s banner season, a potential table-setter for another gigantic party—it all arrives Saturday in Tiger Stadium, under the sun.