It’s fourth-and-four, but that doesn’t matter because there is just one second left on clock.
Rueben Riley – who at the beginning of the season was considered the third-string right tackle – is playing with casts on both his hands.
He’s ready to block one of the Big Ten’s best sack artists on what Riley knows will be a pass play.
The fact that he’s out there says a lot about how far Riley has come.
For four years in high school, “Big Rube” played both offensive and defensive line, and he was ranked as high as the No. 7 center in the country when he was being recruited by Michigan.
He was even bigger in high school than he is now. When he was growing up, Riley was always the biggest kid on the team – so big, that he was singled out with an ‘X’ on his helmet, indicating that he was too big to play on the defensive line. His dad, a 380-pound lineman who played with Jerry Rice at Mississippi Valley State, told his son that he should never have to apologize for being big.
“He told me, ‘Never apologize for being fast and big and strong,’ ” Rueben recalled. “So what, you’re nine years old but as big as these 13-year-olds. That’s not your fault. Don’t apologize for it. – It’s a gift.’ “
So there were high expectations for Riley coming into his freshman year at Michigan. Riley was one of the best. Riley expected to be one of the best. The coaches expected him to be one of the best.
But for a while, he was the odd man out. Coming out of training camp last year, Riley didn’t get one of the five starting jobs. He ended up playing when Leo Henige went down with an injury, but, as a competitor, he was still disappointed.
This year was a different year, but the same result for Riley. He said he handled the disappointment better this year, but he came into training camp fighting for one of the five O-line positions and left without a starting job.
“The issue was consistency,” Riley said. “And coach Carr told me, ‘Rueben, you can play well, but can you play well for 60 minutes?’ He put me in there against Minnesota (last season) – that was a tough game that we won. He said, ‘OK, you can play consistently. You showed us what you need to. Now continue to do that.’ “
But Riley hasn’t been the only player struggling with consistency this year. It’s been the theme song for the Wolverines all season long. Win one, lose one, win one, lose one. For the team that hasn’t yet won two in a row, consistency has obviously been an issue.
This Michigan team came into the season with expectations at least as high as Riley’s. The Wolverines were ranked third in the country and had what looked to be a cupcake nonconference schedule. They were going to do big things.
But like Riley, the Wolverines didn’t always get to where they wanted. They dreamed national championship, and they started the season 3-3. They dreamed Big Ten championship, and they dropped out of the top-25 for the first time in nearly a decade. The Wolverines made mistakes in games that they should have won. They weren’t able to produce consistently, week in and week out. They won an overtime battle at Michigan State only to turn around and lose a heartbreaker to Minnesota.
But how do you teach consistency? How do you make sure that you don’t make any mistakes?
“It’s mental,” Riley said. “When they’re telling you consistent, it’s mental. You can pull around and block the linebacker. You can pass block. But can you do that when you’re tired? Can you do that when the odds are stacked against you?”
Riley should know. Because he’s made the change. He took his weakness and worked on the mental part of his game. And this week against one of the best defensive lines in the country, he made consistency a priority.
This week, Henne had plenty of time to throw. This week, the offensive line – still suffering from injuries – picked up blitzes. This week, with one second left, Henne had enough time to make the throw that won the game.
“I can’t say enough good things about Rueben Riley,” Carr said.
He has changed his approach to the game, and he has managed to eliminate the mistakes from the football game. Like much of his team, he’s playing hurt – he has casts on each of his hands – but he has stayed consistent. Saturday was just one game, and, like Carr told him, he needs to continue to do that. But it’s a step in the right direction.
The jury is still out on the Michigan football program. This was a great win for the team, a great win for the coaches and a great win for the fans. But consistent would be winning two in a row. Two in a row means going into Iowa City and taking one from the Hawkeyes.
“Whenever you feel like, ‘We might not get this one,’ it’s over,’ ” Riley said. “Really, it’s over for you. So you repeat to yourself, ‘It’s not over. We have a second left. It’s not over.’ And it wasn’t over.”
Riley admitted he was nervous on that final play. He lined up across from defensive end Tamba Hali, who last week against Ohio State sealed the game for the Nittany Lions with a sack on Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith.
But that didn’t matter for the newly consistent Rueben Riley.
The ball was snapped and Hali rushed to the outside.
As consistent as ever, Riley used his speed to push Hali upfield, opening up a throwing lane for the game’s winning score.
– Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.