FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Gary Nova’s career day came at exactly the right time for a Rutgers team eager to prove it belongs among the country’s best.
Nova was 25 of 35 passing for a career-best 397 yards and five touchdowns Saturday night to lead the Scarlet Knights to a 35-26 win over Arkansas.
The win extends Rutgers’ (4-0) undefeated stretch this season, and it was the school’s first over a Southeastern Conference team since beating Vanderbilt in 2004.
“I’m proud of the evolution of Gary Nova,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “All I wanted from Gary is to get a little bit better each week, and I think he’s done that. It’s starting to show up on game day, which is great.
“I think Gary made some excellent passes tonight. I don’t know if he was perfect, but he’s a great player.”
Rutgers’ continued rise came at the expense of a Razorbacks team once again left reeling. Arkansas, which lost 52-0 to No. 1 Alabama last week, has now lost three games in a row for the first time since 2008 — despite Cobi Hamilton’s SEC-record 303 yards receiving and three touchdowns on Saturday.
The Razorbacks (1-3) entered the season ranked No. 8 before plummeting out of the rankings following a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. The last time they lost three in a row was in former coach Bobby Petrino’s first season.
Petrino was fired in April, and interim coach John L. Smith — whose brother passed away earlier this week — was left to pick up the pieces after yet another disheartening defeat.
“Why would (fans) not think these guys are going to do the best that they can to right the ship?” Smith said. “They’re going to go to the field. That’s all we know. That’s all they have. We don’t have any other option except to go to the field, start tomorrow, work as hard as we can work, hopefully get some guys back and try to right it. That’s all we can do.”
Even quarterback Tyler Wilson’s 419-yard passing performance in his return after missing the loss to the Crimson Tide with a concussion wasn’t enough to stop Arkansas’ losing ways.
“Physically I feel pretty good, but we have to go out and win,” Wilson said. “I feel really good physically, but deep down inside, not so good.”
The Scarlet Knights, meanwhile, were on the complete other end of the emotional spectrum. They celebrated the school’s first 4-0 start since 2006 with the vocal Rutgers’ fan base in Razorback Stadium afterward, and Flood couldn’t help but smile while becoming the third coach in school history to start his career with that mark in his first season.
Flood relied heavily on Nova on Saturday to secure the win.
Rutgers trailed 10-0 in the first quarter before storming back behind its sophomore quarterback, who had never thrown more than two touchdowns in a game. Nova shattered that mark, as well as his previous best 298-yard passing effort against Connecticut last season.
He threw a pair of touchdown passes to Brandon Coleman, but none of his five scoring passes were more important than a 60-yard strike to Mark Harrison in the fourth quarter. The two-play touchdown drive put the Scarlet Knights up 35-26 and helped stem the tide of what appeared to be a furious Arkansas comeback.
“I saw a one-on-one, so I threw him a ball that I knew he could go up and get,” Nova said. “Mark did a great job snagging it and finishing off the play.”
Arkansas had 176 yards of offense in the first quarter and took the early 10-0 lead after Wilson’s 57-yard touchdown pass to Hamilton, the first of what turned into a series of big plays and a career night for the receiver.
Hamilton’s yardage record bested the 293-yard receiving effort by LSU’s Josh Reed in 2001, doing so on 10 catches, and the Razorbacks’ offense appeared back on track with Wilson at the helm. Wilson hadn’t played since the first half of the loss to Louisiana-Monroe two weeks ago, but he promised after the Alabama loss to do his best to return as quickly as possible and keep Arkansas nationally relevant.
The senior performed as expected in his return, but Rutgers — ranked 12th nationally in total defense — found the answer to the Razorbacks’ offense after some early struggles. Arkansas led the SEC in total offense and scoring last season, but the Scarlet Knights held it to four straight three-and-outs at one point in the first half — with the Razorbacks gaining just 18 yards in the second quarter.
Nova, meanwhile, had every answer for the Scarlet Knights’ offense. His first touchdown pass was a 10-yarder to Jamison in the second quarter, and he followed that with his first touchdown to Coleman to put Rutgers up 14-10 at halftime.
Coleman opened the second-half scoring with his second touchdown, a 38-yard strike, and Nova’s fourth touchdown pass — a 2-yarder to Paul Carreloza — put the Scarlet Knights up 28-13 and capped a 28-3 scoring run for the Big East school in it is first meeting with Arkansas.
Wilson responded with back-to-back touchdown passes for the Razorbacks, including an 80-yard completion that closed the Rutgers lead to 28-26 midway through the fourth quarter. However, the Scarlet Knights foiled Arkansas’ 2-point conversion attempt and held on to the lead.
Two plays later, Nova found Harrison for the game-clinching 60-yard touchdown — leading to a Rutgers celebration afterward and leaving the Razorbacks still searching for answers in their first season post-Petrino.
“I’d trade all of my yards for a win,” Hamilton said. “We came here to win. We know this is going to change our season around, but we have another chance next week. We wanted to come out here with a win, but we’ll come out next week against Texas A&M.”
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