As the clock hit all zeros Saturday in Highpoint Solutions Stadium, most Arkansas fans were saying to themselves, “What just happened?”
The Arkansas Razorbacks (3-1) suffered their first loss under head coach Bret Bielema after having a 17-point lead late in the third quarter. Rutgers (3-1) gave never gave up and rallied back from a 24-7 deficit and pulled out the 28-24 victory at home to beat Arkansas for the second straight year.
The Razorback defense allowed Gary Nova and the Rutgers offense to drive straight down the field into the red zone on the first possession of the game. However, the Hogs received a gift when a fumbled handoff was recovered by Jarrett Lake.
A.J. Derby took snaps under center all day in place of the injured Brandon Allen and the offense suffered because of it. The first drive ended on a punt for Arkansas and that became a common theme for the offense throughout the rest of the game.
Rutgers’ next series was no different than the first and they drove down the field at will, but the Razorbacks caught another break when the Knights 32-yard field goal was blocked to keep the game scoreless.
Arkansas came to a fourth down at midfield when punter Sam Irwin-Hill rolled to his right and executed a fake punt, passing to Alan D’Appollonio for the 24-yard gain and first down. Zach Hocker capped off the drive with a 41-yard field goal to put the score at 3-0.
The Razorback defense got its first touchdown of the year when Rutgers had a third and long on its own 16. Trey Flowers pressured Nova to force a throw that cornerback Tevin Mitchell intercepted and took into the end zone for the 26-yard score and the Hogs were up 10-0.
After two punts each by both offenses, Rutgers found itself deep in Arkansas territory and converted on a fourth and four on the Razorback 19-yard line with just under two minutes until half.
Chris Smith, who had another nice game, sacked Nova on the next play for a loss of 15 yards and put them seemingly out of field goal range.
The Razorback defense was keeping them in the game so far in place of the struggling offense, but that took a slight hit when on the next play Rutgers had a 2nd and 25.
On what was going to be another stop by the defense, Nova scrambled out of bounds for a short gain, but Lake made the mistake of hitting him late which resulted in a 15-yard personal foul penalty.
Nova passed to his tight end Tyler Kroft two plays later for a touchdown and Arkansas went into halftime up 10-7.
The offense for the Razorbacks finally woke up coming out of the half and went on a ten play 75-yard touchdown drive. Derby had two nice passes along with the 17-yard touchdown pass to Javontee Herndon to finish the drive and gain back momentum.
Star defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Smith teamed up on the next Rutgers possession when Flowers forced a fumble on Nova and it was recovered by Smith to set up good field position for the Hogs.
On very next play an unlikely passing touchdown came from running back Jonathan Williams when he took the fake sweep and threw to Hunter Henry to put the Hogs up 24-7.
That would be the last time Arkansas would score.
Rutgers would change the entire momentum of the game when an Irwin-Hill rugby punt was shanked left instead of where the coverage was set up to the right. Janarion Grant took the advantage of this and with one cut, ran for a touchdown to make the score 24-14.
Arkansas’ offense continued to struggle tremendously and they punted away yet again.
The game however was still favoring Arkansas but on a 4th and 12 from the Razorback 33-yard line, a miscommunication in coverage allowed Nova to hit his receiver in stride for a touchdown. The Scarlet Knights were now only down three and had all of the momentum in the world.
Again the Hog offense punted and opened the door for Rutgers to take the lead.
Nova executed the offense flawlessly and picked the Arkansas defense apart on the short drive and gave Rutgers the lead on a 4-yard touchdown pass. Rutgers, who was down 24-7 just a quarter earlier, had scrapped their way back into the game and led 28-24.
Derby had one last chance to lead the offense on a drive in which they needed a touchdown, but came up short because of two negative yardage plays and the Hogs had to punt away.
Rutgers converted a short third down and that was all they needed to run out the clock on the Hogs to get the 28-24 win.
So what did happen to the Hogs? For starters, the offense was horrendous. Rutgers had a great game plan and consistently stacked the box. They were going to make Derby throw to move the ball on them and that’s exactly what happened. Derby was 14-of-26 for only 137 yards.
Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams didn’t put up big numbers like they had been and the Razorbacks only rushed for 101 yards. Even with that, 19 of those yards were gained off two reverses by Keon Hatcher. Not exactly ideal for a supposedly power-running team.
There were a number of other excuses that you could come up with as well.
Starting quarterback Brandon Allen being out is the main excuse. Maybe the game does turn out differently if he plays, but injuries are something you have to deal with and overcome.
The personal foul penalty, punt return for touchdown, and the busted coverage on 4th and 13 are all things that hurt the Hogs but are a part of the game and the Razorbacks just never responded.
This game might put expectations back down to what they were during the offseason. In a matter of a quarter, Arkansas went from maybe a six to seven win team, to now looking hard on the schedule just to find another chance for a victory.
Truth is, this team is just not that talented and right now doesn’t have what Bielema needs to run his power running offense. The defense is still struggling and will get torched by many SEC offenses. Arkansas relied on trick plays and turnovers to stay in this game and that’s something that cannot become a habit throughout the rest of the season.
There are positives of this team like the defensive line. This is by far the most talented position group on the team and maybe even in the conference. These guys are going to keep Arkansas competitive in most games and are going to cause a lot of trouble for opposing offenses.
Alex Collins has showed that he has tremendous potential and kicker Zach Hocker is an incredible place kicker and punter. This Arkansas football team is still young and so many of those players are getting pivotal playing time and making impacts already. There is hope for the future and potential is there. This is a rebuilding and transition year and this is what some Hog fans need to realize.
Bielema has to get his football team to have a short memory and learn from this disappointing loss and move on. That’s because Johnny Manziel and the Aggies come to town this weekend and the Razorbacks start their daunting schedule of SEC play.