PISCATAWAY N.J. — For three quarters, the Arkansas defense played well enough to give the Razorbacks a win against Rutgers.
But Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova reminded the Razorbacks it’s a four-quarter game as he rallied the Scarlet Knights from a 17-point deficit for a 28-24 win.
"Give credit to them. They were able to capitalize on some mismatches and some things that they were able to pick apart. Their quarterback converted and their receivers made some plays," Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said.
"We’ll definitely have a great learning experience from this. It hurts. It’s a very somber locker room, but hopefully we’ll take some things from this and learn and it will help us down the line. It’s a process, one that I’m enjoying on a daily basis. But we’ll come out of this better because of what happened today."
At the end of the third quarter, Nova was 15-of-30 passing for 199 yards with one touchdown and one interception. But he was brilliant in the fourth quarter as he completed 7-of-15 for 127 yards and two more TDs.
Nova has shredded the Arkansas defense for two seasons now.
In 2012, he completed 25-of-35 passes for 397 yards and five touchdowns. The Scarlet Knights rolled for 525 total yards in a 35-26 win at Fayetteville and added 400 more yards on Saturday.
Nova, who suffered a concussion on Sept. 14 in a 28-10 win against Eastern Michigan, was battered by the Arkansas defense early. The Razorbacks forced him to fumble on the opening possession of the game inside the Arkansas 10. Darius Philon got two of the five Arkansas sacks in the first quarter.
Then, with Arkansas up 3-0 in the final seconds of the first quarter, Trey Flowers hurried Nova into a bad throw that wound up in Tevin Mitchell’s hands. The Arkansas cornerback returned the pass 26 yards for a touchdown for a 10-0 Arkansas lead.
"We were in Cover 2, I read the quarterback’s eyes and he threw it right into my hands," Mitchell said. "With the help of the (defensive) line … I was able to score."
Nova’s favorite target was tight end Tyler Kroft. He entered the game with just five catches for 53 yards and one TD this season. He caught six for 133 yards and one touchdown against Arkansas. Bielema said Kroft’s 15-yard touchdown catch with 39 seconds left in the second quarter was a momentum swinger.
On first-and-10 at the Arkansas 19, Smith sacked Nova for a 15-yard loss. But on second-and-25, linebacker Jarrett Lake was whistled for a face-mask penalty which gave the Scarlet Knights a first down at the Arkansas 15. Two plays later, Nova hit Kroft for the score.
"I think that’s huge. We get a negative-yard play. We take them really probably out of field goal range and then we have a personal foul," Bielema said. "I don’t know what our penalty totals were (six for 66 yards) but they’re absolutely insane. That’s just something that needs to be eliminated.
"We cannot win football games — you will not win a football game you’re supposed to, creating penalty yardage like we did and that’s just all on me."
Rutgers lost another fumble early in the third quarter when Flowers stripped the ball from Nova and defensive end Chris Smith recovered. On the next play, running back Jonathan Williams threw a TD pass to tight end Hunter Henry for a 24-7 Arkansas lead.
After Rutgers made it 24-14 on a 58-yard punt return for touchdown, Arkansas had a chance to slow the Scarlet Knights’ momentum. But linebackers Otha Peters and Martrell Spaight each missed easy interceptions.
"When we were up three scores there, we just needed a break for that to happen," Bielema said. "Otha, God bless him, he’s out there playing with a cast on and it bounced off his hands.
"Martrell, where he just kind of flashed behind it. For us to win on the road with our personnel, we’re going to have to get a break or two. We’ll point those things out to those guys, but you have to make those plays, too."
Arkansas held Rutgers to less than 30 yards of offense in the third quarter. But the Scarlet Knights put together a six-play, 98-yard TD drive early in the fourth.
Kroft caught a 42-yard pass which helped spark another scoring drive. Then on fourth-and-12, Nova hit Leonte Carroo for a 33-yard TD that cut the Arkansas lead to 24-21 early in the fourth quarter.
"They were running routes we hadn’t seen before before, we had to make our corrections," Arkansas safety Eric Bennett said. "They were running different routes than what we’d seen on film. Just in the second half they started running routes we hadn’t see before."
Another long punt return put Rutgers at the Arkansas 33 midway through the fourth quarter. Nova completed 3-of-5 passes for all 33 yards as Rutgers took the lead and, eventually, the win.