FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson was back under center Saturday night.
Not even the senior — or a record-setting performance from receiver Cobi Hamilton — could help the Razorbacks stop their unbelievable slide.
Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova threw for 397 yards and five touchdowns Saturday night, leading the Scarlet Knights to a 35-26 win against the Razorbacks in front of an announced crowd of 72,543 in Razorback Stadium. Nova's big night included the final dagger, a 60-yard touchdown pass to receiver Mark Harrison with 7:20 left, which thwarted what had become a furious comeback attempt by the Razorbacks.
It dropped Arkansas to 1-3, which is the program’s worst start since 2005. The three-game losing streak also is Arkansas’ first since 2008, when the Hogs lost to Alabama, Texas and Florida in former coach Bobby Petrino’s first season.
The three losses this year have come to Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama and Rutgers.
“Is it unbelievable?” Wilson said about the consecutive losses. “Not as you live it out. We haven’t done things like we need to do.
“I wouldn’t probably think, if you told me this at the end of last season, that this would be the result. But it is what it is. … They’re not easy for anybody to watch.”
Wilson vows Arkansas still won’t point fingers after another disappointing defeat, but there’s plenty of blame to dole out for Saturday’s disaster.
The biggest: Arkansas failed to stop a Rutgers passing attack that entered the night ranked 103rd in the nation (188.3 yards). Nova enjoyed a career day carving through an Arkansas defense that got shaky coverage and no pass rush on the quarterback throughout most of the game.
But Wilson and the offense will shoulder some blame as well. After jumping out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, Arkansas went three-plays-and-out on four straight series in the second and third quarters. The Razorbacks had 20 yards on 12 plays during the stretch, while Rutgers got in the end zone three times to take control.
It all culminated in Arkansas’ third straight loss at home and added to what has already been a miserable September for the Razorbacks under John L. Smith.
“Our guys hung in there and battled. They battled hard. They battled until the end,” Smith said, trying to find some positive. “We didn’t make enough plays to win it.
“I do really appreciate our fans and their support. I know they’re disappointed and they deserve better. We’re going to go to the field and work at getting them better.”
But the fact Arkansas is so far off at this point is a sobering reality for the program. The Razorbacks may have lost two straight, but entered the game with plenty of hope the losing would end when Wilson was cleared to return Thursday after missing the Alabama game because of a concussion.
The senior stepped back under center and, despite being sacked on the game’s first play, had Arkansas in good position early after throwing a 57-yard touchdown pass to Hamilton in the first quarter. It ended a 99-minute, 22-second stretch in which Arkansas hadn’t scored a touchdown. The big play gave the Hogs a 10-0 lead.
Those good feelings hit a screeching halt in the second quarter, when Arkansas hit the skids on both sides of the ball. Smith believes the turning point came when the Razorbacks were flagged for offsides on a Rutgers field goal attempt. The yardage gave Rutgers a first down and they turned it into their first touchdown.
“That was a big change in the game and just a mistake on our part,” Smith said. “You can’t have that kind of mistake when you play as hard as you do defensively and you hold them to three, and then you turn around and give them seven out of it.”
Arkansas trailed 21-10 before it finally snapped out of the daze in the third quarter.
The Hogs got in gear with the Wilson-to-Hamilton combination. The duo hooked up for 17- and 29-yard completions to open a drive with Arkansas down.
A pass interference penalty on the next play moved Arkansas to first-and-goal from the Rutgers 5, but it was as close as Arkansas could get. Freshman Mekale McKay dropped a touchdown pass on third-and-goal and Arkansas had to settle for Zack Hocker’s second field goal to make it 21-13.
Rutgers scored again to make it 28-13 late in the third quarter, but Wilson and Hamilton continued to connect to lead Arkansas back. The senior caught a 10-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth to close the gap to 28-20. Then, after a defensive stop, Wilson hit Hamilton for an 80-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-26.
Arkansas couldn’t tie the game on the two-point conversion, but the score gave the Razorbacks plenty of life with 8:19 left. It also gave Hamilton the school and Southeastern Conference single-game receiving record, snapping a mark set by former LSU receiver Josh Reed (293 yards in 2001).
Hamilton finished with 10 catches for 303 yards with 3 touchdowns.
“I would trade all of my yards for a win,” Hamilton said.
Arkansas didn’t win, though, because Rutgers responded immediately.
Nova connected with Harrison — who beat cornerback Kaelon Kelleybrew deep — two plays later for the 60-yard score. It gave the Scarlet Knights a 35-26 lead.
“We were going to be aggressive,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “It’s a one-score game, I think you have to be aggressive. You have to go out there and win the game.”
The Razorbacks tried to rally again, but couldn’t move the ball and punted. They got it back one more time, then Wilson threw his second interception to end hopes.
Wilson finished 20 of 40 for 419 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
“Physically, I feel really good,” Wilson said. “Deep down inside, not so good.”
That’s the case with the rest of the Razorbacks, who have watched so much go up in smoke just four games into the season.
Wilson was disappointed, but not completely distraught after the loss. The quarterback, who called out teammates for their performance in last week’s 52-0 loss to Alabama, said the demeanor on the sideline was much different throughout the second half Saturday.
It’s not the kind of progress Arkansas planned to concentrate on when it opened the year.
But it’s the only thing the Razorbacks can grasp now in the middle of their struggles.
“Does it feel like time is running out?” Wilson said. “No, because we’ve got a lot of games left. At this point it’s about salvaging what we can salvage.”