But Nova responded with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to former high school teammate Leonte Carroo and the Scarlet Knights scored the final 21 points of the game to down the Razorbacks 28-24 Saturday before 51,969 fans at High Points Solution Stadium.
Nova finished 22-of-43 for 346 yards and three touchdowns for Rutgers (3-1) while absorbing 46 yards in sack losses against Arkansas (3-1), which led 24-7 midway through the third quarter.
"Going back to last spring and early fall camp, I told our guys that every Saturday there is a team that comes out a winner and a team that comes out a loser," Razorback head coach Bret Bielema said. "And sometimes, a team does some things to give the ball game away before the other team in part, wins it.
"I'm not taking anything from Rutgers," Bielema added. "They're a tremendous football team that played a four-quarter game and did a really nice job of executing in the fourth quarter when we didn't.
"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 today, we won't win all of the ones we're capable of (winning)."
Razorback junior quarterback AJ Derby – filling in for injured starter Brandon Allen – was 14-of-26 passing for 137 of his team's 182 yards through the air on a day when Arkansas' rushing attack was limited to 101 yards.
"Well, you know. obviously, with AJ ... we pretty much knew all week (he was going to start)," Bielema said. "I wasn't playing with you guys. Brandon took some snaps on Thursday, but he wasn't anywhere near being able to throw this week and you can't play a quarterback that can't throw. So we knew for him to have a chance to play next week, we went with AJ as the starter.
"AJ prepared everyday that way and I think it was good for him to be able to do that," Bielema added. "Our players rallied around that a little bit."
Freshman Alex Collins had 16 carries for 63 yards while sophomore Jonathan Williams had just 25 yards on 12 carries.
The game is somewhat similar to a game in the first season of Bobby Petrino's tenure at Arkansas, which led Kentucky 20-7 with five minutes left in the game only to lose 21-20 to the Wildcats.
Arkansas had only three yards rushing on six carries in the fourth quarter on Saturday after dominating its first three over-matched foes in that frame.
"It's hard to swallow obviously," Arkansas senior center Travis Swanson said. "Don't know exactly what happened. We didn't really finish the fourth quarter. Obviously, everyone is down."
Rutgers tailback Paul James, who came into the game leading the nation in rushing with 493 yards, had 17 carries for 80 yards before leaving with a lower leg injury and missing most of the fourth quarter. It was a day when the Scarlet Knights had exactly 400 yards total offense to the Razorbacks' 283.
Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood was obviously happy with his team's second win over Arkansas in as many years.
"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."
Nova says that he kept his head even after his three turnovers and being knocked around by the Razorback defense.
"It's a great win," Nova said afterwards. "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. 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."
Arkansas roared out of the halftime locker and marched 75 yards in 10 plays with Derby tossing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Javontee Herndon to cap the almost five-minute drive.
The drive included two wide receiver sweeps to sophomore Keon Hatcher, who had two carries for 19 yards and led the receivers with four catches for 45 yards in his first game back after missing two games with a hamstring injury.
"Our offense in the second half, especially to come out with a drive right away and score made a big statement," Bielema said. "Defensively, we didn't play as well in the fourth quarter as I thought we had up until that point."
Hocker's PAT made it 17-7 with 10:01 remaing in third quarter, but it wouldn't stay that way long.
That's because Trey Flowers would soon sack Nova and cause a fumble that fellow defensive end Chris Smith recovered.
On the next play, tailback Williams hit freshman tight end Hunter Henry with a 19-yard touchdown pass.
"It's something we've been working on since the spring," Williams said. "It was just a sudden change and coach wanted to take a shot and we took a shot."
Combined with Hocker's PAT, the Razorbacks were suddenly up 24-7 just over seven minutes into the third quarter.
"I think the fake punt and the halfback pass, those were things that kind of have been in our system, but we knew we would have to kind of steal some first downs today in order to be productive," Bielema said. "It just wore down in the fourth quarter and we weren't able to maximize the game."
Arkansas dodged a bullet when a review overturned a fumble that was returned for a score, but didn't dodge the next one.
That was a 57-yard punt return for a score by Janarion Grant off a running rugby punt by Sam Irwin-Hill.
Nick Borgese's PAT cut it to 24-14 with 2:14 left in a third quarter where the Scarlet Knights had just 25 yards total offense.
Irwin-Hill, who punted with both his left and right feet during the game, did not place it where he was supposed to, according to Bielema.
"Yeah a little bit," Bielema said. ""He was rugbying and he rugby kicked it across his body left and I think in our coverage, we have to design something that keeps more contain over there to our left. He pulled it across his body and then obviously brought it out to the field where we didn't have a lot of coverage."
Still, Arkansas had three different times on the same possession early in the fourth quarter that it came close to intercepting Nova with linebackers Otha Peters and Martrell Spaight having two of those opportunities.
"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."
Instead of that happening, Rutgers took its good fortune and added the two fourth-quarter touchdowns to win the game.
The first came on a 4th-and-12 play from as he hit Carroo on a 33-yard pass play over Tevin Mitchel with 9:55 left in the game.
The game-winner came after Grant returned a punt 47 yards down inside Arkansas territory.
Nova would hook up with Carroo again on a 4-yard scoring toss that ultimately proved to be the deciding points.
That was certainly different than how the game started as Rutgers was deep in Arkansas territory both of its first two possessions, but came up empty on both occasions.
With the Scarlet Knights at the Razorback 9, Nova fumbled and Jarrett Lake recovered back at the Rutgers' 19.
The home team's second drive ended with struggling field goal kicker Kyle Federico's missing a 32-yard field goal that was credit officially to Byran Jones, but was actually 6-10 offensive lineman Dan Skipper who got his hand on it.
Arkansas then got on the board first after a fake punt that saw punter Irwin Hill tossing a 24-yard pass to snapper Alan D'Appolonio down to the Rutgers 27.
The Razorbacks couldn't get into the end zone after that, but settled for Hocker's 41-yard field goal to go up 3-0 with 1:51 left in the opening quarter.
It quickly became 10-0 when Mitchel picked off Nova and raced into the end zone from 26 yards out with 21 seconds left in the first quarter.
The score stayed that way until late in the half with the Scarlet Knights scoring late with Arkansas' half.
After defensive end Chris Smith sacked Nova for minus 15 back at the home team's 34, Nova was hit late out of bounds by Lake on the next play.
"I think that's huge," Bielema said. "We get a negative-yard play. We take them really probably out of field goal range and then we have a personal foul. I don't know what our penalty totals were 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."
It was the worst penalty of the day as Arkansas had six for 66 yards and Rutgers just three for 25.
"Critical," Bielema said. "Obviously that one before the half and then we're going to set a world record for face masks at the corner position if we don't learn how to knife our opponents or do a better job of wrapping up."
That enabled Nova to hit tight end Tyler Kroft (6 catches, 133 yards) on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds left before intermission.
Ironically, Arkansas did not get the timeout it was trying to call before the snap while Rutgers had avoided a failed fourth-down play earlier in the drive when its coaches did get a timeout called.
"Every little bit counts," Bielema said. "I have to be held accountable. Just to make sure they understand every detail of the week matters. We have to be able to do that on a person-by-person, coach-by-coach, from the head coach on down, all the way through."
Strangely the two punt team miscues came on a day when both punters had good days with Hocker having three boots for 57-yard average (including a 77-yarder with the wind) and Irwin Hill with six punts for a 42.5 average.
Arkansas now continues the hardest part of its schedule with a game against visiting Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel next week at 6 p.m.
The Aggies moved to 3-1 with a 42-13 win over an SMU team that passed the ball 62 times and ran it 10 in the contest.
Manziel had 244 yards passing and three touchdowns and ran for another 102 in the game.
The locker room afterwards was subdued as expected.
"We're all sticking together," Hatcher said. "We're going to move forward. We got better today. I know it doesn't look like it because we lost, but we got better today and we're going to move forward and get ready for Texas A&M."
Bielema said his team will turn the page quickly.
"It's a somber locker room right now, but they know we're in SEC play now," Bielema said. "We'll discuss that. One of the things I think is really important for our program is we practice on Sundays and we put that game to rest by 4:30 whether it's a win or a loss. We put it behind us and move forward.
"We'lll take the teaching opportunity that this film gives us and then we'll introduce ourselves to A&M, get a jump on them," Bielema added. "Monday's an overtime day for those guys, Tuesday we'll hit the ground running with our second practice. I think our guys will be excited. It'll be a great way to bounce back."
Jarrett Lake recovers a fumble.
Tevin Mitchel returned an interception for a touchdown.
Snapper Alan D'Appollonio makes a catch for a first down on a fake punt.
Deatrich Wise rushes Gary Nova.
Bret Bielema coached his first away game for the Hogs.
Alex Collins didn't find much room against Rutgers.
Photos by Jason Ivester, Hawgs Illustrated