PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Arkansas seemed to have its best start since 2003 secure — in New Jersey of all places.
The Razorbacks held a 17-point second-half lead, they were controlling play, and a frustrated Rutgers fan base seemed ready to head to the exits.
But then Arkansas let the home team — and its crowd — back in it. An hour or so later, the Razorbacks were saddled instead with their first loss.
Freshman Janarion Grant scored on a 58-yard punt return in the third quarter, and Gary Nova had two touchdown passes to Leonte Carroo in the final 9:55 as Rutgers stunned Arkansas 28-24 Saturday.
“There was a momentum swing in the third quarter,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. “Momentum was on our side and we had every opportunity to put our foot on their throat and we didn’t. 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.”
The loss to Rutgers (3-1) was the second in as many years for Arkansas (3-1). And this one hurt.
Rutgers had been held to just 25 yards in the third quarter before Nova engineered two scoring drives, including a 98-yard march that took just 1:43 to complete.
“They were running routes that we hadn’t seen before (in the fourth),” Razorbacks safety Eric Bennett said. “They ran routes that they didn’t run on film.”
Now, instead of a 4-0 start, Arkansas begins SEC play against Texas A&M next week in a tough spot.
“It’s a somber locker room,” first-year coach Bret Bielema said. “We take them out of field goal range, and then we have a personal foul (that led to a TD near the end of the first half). I don’t know what our penalty totals were, but they were absolutely insane.
“You will not win a football game you’re supposed to giving up penalty yardage like we did.”
Nova finished with three touchdown passes, with the last two covering 33 and 4 yards to Carroo. The shorter one proved to be the game winner with 5:18 to go. Grant set up the game-winning score with a 47-yard punt return to the Arkansas 33.
“Sometimes a team does things to give the game away before the other team does actually does something to win it. I’m not taking anything away from Rutgers, they’re a tremendous football team and they play a four-quarter game,” Bielema said. “They did a good job of executing in the fourth quarter and we didn’t.”
Nova, who was knocked out of last week’s game with a concussion, also threw a 15-yard touchdown to tight end Tyler Kroft as the Scarlet Knights won their third straight.
Tevin Mitchel scored on a 26-yard interception return for Arkansas, which had the start it wanted on the road — a long way from home.
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.
“The fake punt and halfback pass are all things that are in our system, but we knew we had to do some things to steal first downs,” Bielema said. “We just wore down in the fourth quarter and weren’t able to maximize our game.”
Nova finished 22 of 43 for 346 yards. He also threw an interception and lost two fumbles. 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 the 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.
From there, Rutgers dominated the fourth, a period Arkansas had outscored opponents, 21-0.