In what can only be called a statement game for coach Kyle Flood's team, Rutgers sophomore Gary Nova had his best game ever as a starting quarterback. Nova went 25-of-35 for 397 yards and five touchdowns as Rutgers downed Arkansas 35-26 on Saturday night. With the victory, the Scarlet Knights moved to 4-0 on the season and improved their record to 6-11-2 against SEC competition.
The fears of Rutgers' fans appeared to be justified early in the first quarter as Arkansas jumped out to a 10-0 lead after wide receiver Cobi Hamilton scored on a 57-yard TD strike. Rutgers' defense had been practicing all week with the expectation that injured QB Tyler Wilson would be the starter when the Knights took the field against the Razorbacks. On Thursday, Wilson (20-of-39 for 419 yards and 3 TDs) was cleared to play, and he quickly set about making the most of the opportunity.
But, whereas in past years under Greg Schiano the Knights might have resorted to trick plays or wildcat formations to spark the team, Kyle Flood allowed his starting quarterback to begin spreading the ball around to his talented receiving corps.
“I wasn’t expecting that coming in," Nova said after the game (as reported by The Star-Ledger's Tom Luicci on NJ.com), "but like I’ve said, that’s a quarterback’s dream, going back and forth like that. Those are the games you dream about.”
Nova's performance—the third best yardage game by any Rutgers quarterback—featured passes to eight different receivers without any interceptions. The aerial assault, the Rutgers defense and the pounding runs of Jawan Jamison changed the tenor of the game before a stunned crowd of 72,543 at Razorbacks Stadium.
Whereas Nova had struggled earlier this season, the young quarterback emerged Saturday to throw TD passes to Jawan Jamison and Brandon Coleman to give the Knights a 14-10 lead at the half despite their difficulty in establishing the running attack against the Arkansas defense.
“The runs weren’t turning out like we wanted them to but we just kept chopping, kept pounding," explained Jamison about the struggling Rutgers first-half rushing attack (as reported by Scarlet Scuttlebutt on mycentraljersey.com), "and we wore them down when we wanted to."
In the third quarter, Nova picked up where he had left off, throwing two more TDs to Brandon Coleman and Paul Carrezola, and as the fourth quarter began, the Scarlet Knights held a 15-point lead at 28-13. But that's when Razorbacks receiver Cobi Hamilton single-handedly brought Arkansas back into the game with two TD catches of his own, closing the score to 28-26 after the Hogs failed to convert the two-point conversion.
With the Rutgers defense reeling and the game's momentum shifting, Nova and Jamison took back the game for the Knights. Less than a minute after Arkansas had closed the gap, Nova hit Mark Harrison with a 60-yard strike that extended the lead to 35-26, which appeared to break the spirit of the Razorbacks. From there, Jamison—who gained 66 yards in the final 13 minutes of the game—extinguished the time on the clock.
Rutgers, who had seen the defense and the running game carry the team through the first three games of the season, saw the passing game carry the team for the first time this year.
“I have to give so much credit to Gary Nova and our offense,” said defensive back Logan Ryan (per Tom Luicci's article). “We were talking the other day how they would have to help us win a game and that’s exactly what they did.”
"I'm proud of the evolution of Gary Nova," said Rutgers coach Kyle Flood (per Tom Luicci's article). Undefeated and leading the Big East it may well be the evolution of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, as well.