PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The first three games of the Bret Bielema era at Arkansas were highlighted by dominant displays in the fourth quarter.
The Razorbacks protected leads by leaning on their offensive line, stringing together long drives that chewed up the clock and wiped out an opponent’s upset hopes.
Arkansas found itself back in that comfortable position once again at Rutgers, building as much as a 17-point lead in the second half of its first road game. This time, the Razorbacks grind-it-out-mentality couldn’t match Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova’s leadership, punt returner Janarion Grant’s big plays, and a Scarlet Knights defense that refused to be beaten by Arkansas’ ground game Saturday.
Arkansas — playing without starting quarterback Brandon Allen — watched its big lead evaporate into a 28-24 loss in front of an announced crowd of 51,969 at High Point Solutions Stadium. The Scarlet Knights capitalized on Arkansas’ mistakes and late struggles, scoring three touchdowns in a 12-minute span to stun the Hogs.
It was Arkansas’ second straight loss to Rutgers (3-1), one that kept the Razorbacks (3-1) from opening 4-0 for the first time since 2003.
“It’s hard to swallow, obviously,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “Don’t know exactly what happened. We didn’t really finish the fourth quarter.”
Rutgers’ comeback was fast and furious; the complete opposite pace Arkansas had hoped it could dictate in the fourth quarter Saturday.
It began with Grant’s 58-yard return for a touchdown late in the third quarter. He fielded a low punt by Sam Irwin-Hill and was untouched, weaving through a big hole in Arkansas’ coverage team for a touchdown that gave Rutgers some momentum.
It was Rutgers’ third special teams touchdown of the season, but the score alone wasn’t a back breaker. Arkansas still had a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter, which it had dominated all season. The Razorbacks had outscored their first three opponents 21-0 and had an overwhelming time of possession edge (35:46 to 9:14).
“We were thinking as an offense we’ve got to put those guys away and we needed one more touchdown to do that,” Arkansas receiver Javontee Herndon said of the 24-7 lead. “But we couldn’t get the job done.”
But backup quarterback A.J. Derby — who completed 14-of-26 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown in place of Allen (shoulder injury) — and the Arkansas offense couldn’t move the ball to help its struggling defense and it proved costly.
Nova did, though, even if he didn’t enjoy a good start after throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter. He also lost two fumbles a week after being knocked out of the game because of a concussion.
Nova directed Rutgers on a 98-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, marching his team six plays in just 1:44. Nova capped the drive with a 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Leonte Carroo on a fourth-and-12 play.
Arkansas was forced to punt after five more plays and, once again, Grant came up with another key special teams play. This time, he returned Zach Hocker’s punt 47 yards deep into Arkansas territory to give Rutgers the ball at the Razorbacks’ 33.
Nova responded with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Carroo six plays later.
“He’s a battler. He’s never going to quit,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “We made a lot of good hits on him, but he’s never going to quit. That’s what he showed last year. He made a lot of good passes in the fourth quarter.”
Nova, who threw for 397 yards and five touchdowns in last season’s 35-26 win at Arkansas, enjoyed another big day. He threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think the way we kept believing the whole time — the sideline was awesome — and when we had the chance, we took advantage of it,” Nova said. “I think we all want to get better and clean up some of the things in the game, but in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line, we stepped up and made plays.”
Bielema pointed to Nova’s toughness.
“I see why they like him. Obviously, he converted when it mattered,” Bielema said. “Some of those deep digs were thrown pretty well. The timing of those routes is what you get when you get an experienced quarterback that has worked with those receivers all through spring and fall camp.”
Arkansas had no answer after Rutgers’ go-ahead score Saturday. Derby tried to lead the Razorbacks on a game-winning drive, but it stalled with 2:48 left. Arkansas decided to punt the ball away and hope for one more chance, but the defense couldn’t stop Rutgers from running out the clock and polishing off a big win.
Rutgers enjoyed it afterward, too, with coach Kyle Flood and his team celebrating on their home field after beating a Southeastern Conference opponent. Arkansas was the first SEC team to play Rutgers on its campus and the fifth-largest crowd in stadium history loved the result, showering the Razorbacks with chants of S-E-C as they left the field.
“I think that snapshot is a football team that can compete with anybody in the country,” Flood said. “A fan base that is in love with college football and when they come to the stadium, we’ll be as imposing a 12th man as there is in college football.”
Arkansas, meanwhile, will remember the trip as a missed opportunity.
“I told our guys, until we learn that all of those things that take away from a yard here, to penalties to missed opportunities to all the little things that happened out there (Saturday), we won’t win all of the ones we’re capable of,” Bielema said.
The Razorbacks were able to build their lead thanks to big plays from the defense (Tevin Mitchel’s 26-yard interception return for a touchdown, five sacks and three forced turnovers) and some successful trick plays. Irwin-Hill threw a 24-yard completion to long snapper Alan D’Appollonio in the first half to set up a field goal, while tailback Jonathan Williams tossed a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry in the third quarter to help the Razorbacks open up the 24-7 lead.
But the defense missed chances to put the game away in the fourth quarter, with potential interceptions going through the hands of Martrell Spaight and Otha Peters.
“We were punching them and punching them, but we knew they were a good team that was going to fight their way back,” Smith said. “We just let it slip away from us.”
And Arkansas’ offense finished with just 283 yards, including 101 on the ground against a defense that entered the game ranked fifth in the nation against the run (59.3 yards a game). Alex Collins (16 carries, 74 yards) and Williams (12 carries, 25 yards) both saw their 100-yard rushing streak end at three games.
“It’s something that we focus on and, you know, our offense thrives on,” Williams said. “So not being able to run the ball kind of hurt us. But we’re just going to go to next week and recuperate and play our game.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Razorbacks, though.
Texas A&M will come to Arkansas with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. It starts a four-game stretch against ranked SEC opponents.
“It’s a hurt locker room now, but they know we’re in SEC play now,” Bielema said of his team. “We put it behind us and move forward.”