PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Something about Arkansas seems to bring out the best in Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova.
Nova threw touchdown passes of 33 and 4 yards to Leonte Carroo in the final 9:55 and Rutgers rallied from a 17-point, second-half deficit to beat previously undefeated Arkansas 28-24 on Saturday.
“It’s a great win,” said Nova, who started despite missing most of last week’s game against Eastern Michigan with a concussion. “The way we won, we kept believing the whole time on the sideline. Everyone was positive and when we had the chance, we took advantage of it.”
This is the second straight year Nova led Rutgers (3-1) over the Razorbacks (3-1). He threw for 397 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-26 win in Fayetteville last season.
Nova struggled more this year, losing two fumbles and throwing an interception early. He was on the money when he needed to be, though, leading scoring drives of 98 and 33 yards against a defense that had not given up a fourth-quarter point in its first three games.
“Somebody told me he had over 250 yards passing in the fourth quarter; it does not surprise me,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “Gary’s greatest attribute is his competitive fire, and it does not surprise me that he can come through a game like that and perform like that in the fourth.”
Nova also threw a 15-yard touchdown to tight end Tyler Kroft as the Scarlet Knights won their third straight.
But Nova has to share the hero role with freshman Janarion Grant. The speedster sparked the rally with a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter and set up the game-winning, 4-yard score to Carroo with 5:18 to play with a 47-yard punt return to the Arkansas 33, a play in which the officials might have missed a block in the back.
“Momentum was on our side and we had every opportunity to put our foot on their throat and we didn’t,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. “I don’t feel like we let up. They got in a few more punches than we did.
“We have to learn to fight to the end.”
Tevin Mitchel scored on a 26-yard interception return for Arkansas which pulled out a lot of trick plays in trying for its first 4-0 start since 2003.
AJ Derby, starting for the injured Brandon Allen, threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Javontee Herndon, and halfback Jonathan Williams connected with Hunter Henry on a 21-yard scoring pass for the Hogs, who seemed to be in total control midway through the second half after opening the 24-7 lead.
Arkansas’s first points came on a 41-yard field goal by Zach Hocker, a score set up by a pass off a fake punt to a center eligible.
But the big play for Rutgers — and the one that ignited the crowd of 51,969, the fifth largest in school history — was Grant’s punt return.
Arkansas punter Sam Irwin-Hill, who threw the pass on the fake punt, rolled to his right after taking the long snap and punted the ball on the run.
Unfortunately for the Hogs, the kick went across the field to Grant’s right, and away from coverage. Grant fielded the ball on a bounce, started down the right side and then cut across the field, leaving the Razorbacks in his dust.
“I saw it, caught the ball on the run and made that move and scored the touchdown,” said Grant, who had a 100-yard kickoff return against Fresno State in the season opener. “It just happened. I was patient and once I had my chance, I took it.”
Rutgers dominated the fourth with Nova leading a six-play, 98-yard drive. He completed a 25-yard pass to Brandon Coleman and a 42-yard catch and run to Kroft, who finished with six catches and 133 yards.
On fourth and 12, he found Carroo on a 33-yard go pattern up the right sideline to cut the gap to three with 9:55 to go.
“I have confidence with all these guys,” Nova said.
Arkansas was outgained 208-103 in the opening half but made a couple of big plays in taking a 10-7 lead. A 24-yard pass by Irwin-Hill to Alan D’Appollonio on fourth down set up a 41-yard field goal by Hocker.
Three plays later, Mitchell stepped in front of a hurried pass by Nova in the right flat and scored a 10-0 lead. But Rutgers stole some momentum on the Nova scoring pass to Kroft in the final minute of the half.
Derby finished 14-of-26 passing for 137 yards.