FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Rutgers head football coach Kyle Flood called it the evolution of Gary Nova. Only a week earlier, Flood was content with Nova, his sophomore quarterback, as a game manage. But after a 35-26 victory at Arkansas tonight and Nova's career-high five touchdown passes, Nova's transition to the role of game changer could come earlier than expected.
"I think it's starting to show up on game day," Flood said of Nova, who torched Arkansas for 397 passing yards. "Hopefully in two weeks [against Connecticut] he can be a little bit better."
It took sophomore wide receiver Brandon Coleman only one move to evade an Arkansas (1-3, 0-1) defender on a bubble screen from Nova, out-running the rest of the defense for the final 36 yards in a pivotal third quarter. The play resulted in 21 unanswered points and a complexion that changed considerably from the game's opening minutes.
Rutgers (4-0, 1-0) had become the aggressor, dictating pace and establishing the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
The 72,533 in attendance at Donald W. Reynolds Razborback Stadium surely saw the continued dismantling of a program in turmoil. But they also witnessed a dynamic pass threat developing in Piscataway.
"We knew we had some opportunities to make plays, and we made them today," Nova said. "I'm just really happy."
Nova had answers for each Arkansas scoring drive. None proved more valuable than a 60-yard touchdown pass to Harrison, not after the Razorbacks cut Rutgers' lead to 2. On a night that featured the return of a 2011 All-SEC First-Team quarterback, the sophomore from Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) proved as capable.
"I wasn't expecting that coming in," Nova said. "That's a quarterback's dream, to go back and forth like that. Those are the moments that you dream about in college football."
Nova and Coleman combined for six connections, 89 yards and two touchdowns. They came on deep routes and horizontal plays. And they did so seemingly at all the right times.
Nova's second-quarter touchdown connection with Coleman gave the Knights their first lead, converting on a route combination that proved unsuccessful at Tulane and South Florida.
"We went real fast," Coleman said. "I knew the corner [had] inside leverage and Gary made a great pass."
Nova's line in the second quarter - 8-for-9 for 111 yards and two touchdowns - was arguably his most productive of the season. Offensive coordinator Dave Brock figures to deserve some of the credit.
Nova benefited from a bevy of play-action rollouts and high-percentage passes, leading to his second straight solid outing. His 70.5 percent completion percentage through 30 minutes was by far a season high.
"I think this is the best game I've probably ever played," Nova said.
The Knights offense needed it.
Arkansas kept Jamison bottled up in the first half, especially on first down. Outside of Jamison's 11-yard run in the first half, the Razorbacks neutralized Jamison on the ground. His 24 first-half yards on 12 carries were a season low.
But he still managed to make his presence felt on a 10-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route, which followed a drive-extending Arkansas offside penalty. Several Razorbacks miscues, combined with junior Jeremy Deering's first-down run on a fake punt, characterized an opportunistic Rutgers offense in the first half.
"You have to go out there and win the game," Flood said. "You can't wait for the other team not to win."