PISTCATAWAY, N.J. — With a major contribution from a freshman kick returner from Florida, matching the backup quarterback vs. the proven starter caught up with Arkansas.
Rutgers 28, Arkansas 24 should have removed the rose-colored glasses worn by some Razorback fans. This is still a team with question marks, particularly on defense. On the plus side is the fact that the Razorbacks competed hard in their first road game and, somehow, manufactured a 17-point lead despite a lack of production from the running game that carried the load the first three weeks.
Football is the ultimate team game and the Razorbacks’ loss is not all on quarterback AJ Derby, subbing for Brandon Allen. But, the onus was on the junior college transfer to produce because neither Alex Collins nor Jonathan Williams was able to break a big play against the Scarlet Knights.
Arkansas’ offensive line did not dominate Rutgers like it did Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Mississippi. For starters, the Scarlet Knights are better up front. In addition, they also crowded the line of scrimmage, knowing Derby was the No. 2 quarterback and that it was unlikely he would be turned loose.
Also, the defensive backs and linebackers made more than one open-field tackle when Collins, in particular, appeared to be a step from six points.
In the final 30 minutes, Derby was 10-of-16, but those completions were rarely downfield and netted only 84 yards. Collins and Williams, who had combined for an average of 270 yards per game, made 88 on a total of 28 attempts. Through three quarters, Keon Hatcher was more productive than Williams with a total of 19 yards gained on two end-arounds. Arkansas did not have a double-digit run until Hatcher made 11.
Despite all that, Arkansas led by 17 in the third quarter because turnovers and trick plays are great equalizers.
Most of the game, Arkansas harassed Nova, who played only one series last week after suffering a concussion. Erratic at best until the fourth quarter, Nova was 7-of-13 for 147 in the final 15 minutes.
Arkansas linebackers had trouble keeping tabs on tight end Tyler Kroft throughout and Nova to Kroft for 41 yards was a key to a six-play, 98-yard drive for 24-21 only one possession after Janarion Grant, who returned a kickoff 100 yards vs. Fresno State, got Rutgers in the game with a 58-yard punt return for a TD. Kroft, who had never caught more than two passes in a game, had six receptions for 133 yards.
Grant’s next punt return ended at the Arkansas 38 and Nova was golden from there. He found a receiver inside Will Hines for 19 yards and whipped one over the middle for 12 before completing a low throw for the lead.
Derby’s final pass was a deep one that Julian Horton could not have caught in bounds. Arkansas punted with 2:56 to play and, despite knowing that Rutgers was going to run, the Razorbacks could not stop the Scarlet Knights.
Until Grant’s punt return for a score, Arkansas was on the cusp of recording a W custom-made for those who put the bottom line at the top of their list.
How weird was it?
• Precisely halfway through the second quarter, Arkansas’ leading passer was the punter and the leading receiver was the backup center. At that point, the Razorbacks’ biggest plays were the handiwork of Nos. 91, 92 and 53, who went into a phone booth and changed to No. 82.
For the unfamiliar, those numbers belong to defensive tackle Darius Philon, punter Sam Irwin-Hill and center-receiver Alan D’Appollonio.
• Rutgers had first-quarter drives of 61 and 65 yards and trailed 10-0. A fumbled resulted on the read option when both quarterback and running back turned loose of the ball simultaneously and a field goal attempt was tipped.
• At intermission, Rutgers had 32 yards rushing, 6 more than Arkansas.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.