Somehow, maybe this will be the best therapy for Rutgers' emotionally spent football team. Maybe the best tribute, too, to Eric LeGrand.
Go play a football game.
The Scarlet Knights (4-2, 1-0) play Pittsburgh (3-3, 1-0) on Saturday in a matchup of teams that won their Big East openers. For Rutgers, there will be an irreplaceable part missing - LeGrand, paralyzed from the neck down while making a tackle against Army, will be in a hospital bed rather than lining up along the defensive front.
It's a big loss that can't be measured on the scoreboard or any statistics sheet, yet somehow the Scarlet Knights' season must go on. It will, because the Knights know that's how LeGrand wants it.
"The guys understand the urgency that is involved," coach Greg Schiano said. "Certainly Eric is on the front of everybody's mind. They've been able to focus on the task at hand. We've talked about it a great deal. Eric LeGrand is a guy that comes in (for practice) and is locked in. He loves everything about it. We talked a lot about that as a team - he can't do that, but now you can."
In honor of LeGrand, Rutgers' players will wear a sticker with the word "Believe" on their helmets.
Pitt's players understand this won't be a normal game. Saddened by the news of LeGrand's injury, the Panthers signed a banner for him, as did many Pitt students, and will display it at Heinz Field. They know their words can't heal but, maybe in some small way, they can help.
"It's a rough sport and, at any time you can have a serious injury," linebacker Tristan Roberts said. "We're playing as hard as we can. Everybody wants to win but, at the same time, we respect the other players and aren't trying to hurt each other."
LeGrand's teammates believe they honored him the best possible way last week by beating Army 23-20 in overtime. This time, they'll try to upset a two-touchdown favorite in Pitt that opened the conference season with a 45-14 rout of Syracuse. It was the first time Pitt played up to the potential of a team that was a near-unanimous pick to win the Big East.
The Panthers, heavily reliant upon the running of Ray Graham (589 yards, 5 TDs) during the front half of the season, are better balanced now that first-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri is settling in. He threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers against Syracuse.
"People probably expect us to run the ball, but when we come out and pass the way we did last week, I think it really opens things up for us," said wide receiver Devin Street, who opened the game with a 79-yard touchdown catch.
Graham is getting some help, too. Dion Lewis, who ran for 1,799 yards last season, gained a season-high 80 yards against Syracuse.
"We finally know what a big win feels like," wide receiver Cam Saddler said. "We don't want to lose that feeling."
Two seasons ago, Mike Teel of Rutgers threw six touchdown passes during a 54-34 win at Pitt, which expected the Scarlet Knights to run the ball. The Panthers came back to win last year 24-17 as Lewis rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
There shouldn't be many surprises this time from Rutgers, which runs a spread offense that often shifts into the wildcat formation.
Chas Dodd (5 TD passes, 2 interceptions) starts at quarterback, but will often give way to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who leads the team in rushing (285 yards, 4 TDs) with yardage gained out of the wildcat. He's also the leading receiver.
Rutgers has dealt before with in-season heartbreak. In 2004, three players were badly injured in a car crash and Dondre Asberry nearly died while spending two months in intensive care with a fractured spine and head injuries. The Knights, 4-2 at the time, went on to lose their final five games.
"Anytime you have been through an experience, you have learned and you are better for it," Schiano said. "There are some things I would've done differently (in 2004) and, hopefully, I have learned from them."