They came to Penn from different paths — one a baseball state champion, one a track captain and another fresh off a two-year church mission in Madagascar. Through their differences, they had one thing in common: a knack for powerhouse, run-it-down-their-throat, downhill, smash-mouth football.
Together they have amassed over 2,800 yards of rushing in just 30 games, a distance that equates to a sprint through hundreds of defenders from Franklin Field to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
And of course, they have kept alive the long tradition of Penn’s offensive rushing attack on the gridiron.
They call themselves “The Stable.”
“We’ve got a bunch of horses,” running backs coach Steve Downs said of his three senior rushers, Lyle Marsh, Jeff Jack and Brandon Colavita. “You can’t have no ponies, no clydesdales, it’s all thoroughbreds … You see those horses always training and working hard, and they do the same thing.”
It’s a name that was established in jest, one to link the friendships of these three different young men.
Or rather, as Colavita explained, “a bunch of stallions in here.”
In the span of their three-year collegiate careers, Colavita, Marsh and Jack have — along with senior quarterback Billy Ragone, senior fullback Greg Shuster and a host of other rushers along the way — led Penn to the second-most rushing yards in the Ivy League, just behind Harvard. What’s scary, though, is the three have never really played together extensively.
“We don’t set actual goals of certain numbers,” Jack said of a healthy stable’s potential. “It’s just going all out to do the best on that single play, and at the end of the game, the stats kind of fall where they are.”
The goal, of course, is to win 10 games and an Ivy championship. Nothing else really matters. They have two already, but missed out on a trifecta after a disappointing 2011 season.
In 2009, Marsh ruled the field. His 4.7 yards per carry earned him a second-team All-Ivy mention in his rookie campaign. Colavita went all but unnoticed — playing only on special teams — and Jack chalked up 66 yards on 17 attempts. That season, the Quakers’ rushing attack was third in the league. They won the Ivy title on a steady run game and unstoppable defense.
The following season, Marsh was poised for an even better year, but things went sour in Week 2 against Villanova. On his 22nd run of the season, he went down with a broken collar bone.
“When Lyle got hurt in 2010, it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re losing Lyle, we’re losing Lyle,’” Downs recalled. “[And then] Bam [Colavita] became a major player, he made all-league, and Jeff was like Steady Eddy for us.”
Call it a lemonade-from-lemons situation, but Colavita made the most of his opportunity. He rushed for 728 yards that season, leading a ground game that put three Penn players in the Ivy top 10. The third thoroughbred that year was not Marsh, but Ragone.
2011 figured to be the most productive year of them all, with two healthy star running backs in Marsh and Colavita and Jack as a constant force and pressure in the backfield. Marsh’s duties were somewhat limited to kick returns — “We wanted that [first hit] to happen sooner than later, but at the right time,” Downs said — but in Week 4 against Fordham, Marsh broke free. As Colavita was resting in the non-league game, Marsh saw most of Penn’s playing time. He had run for a career-high three touchdowns that day, but in the fourth quarter he went down. Once again, it was his 22nd carry of the year. He’d miss the season.
“For that to happen,” Downs said, “it’s like the kid’s got a black cloud over him.
“I broke down myself and I was just, I was sick.”
Through it all, Jack has been reliable and available. There is no better way to describe it than as coach Downs did — Steady Eddy.
“It’s good to be steady, but at the same time … I still need more of those big plays,” Jack said.
While Jack notes that those big plays came more often in his sophomore season than junior campaign, there may be plenty more to come. Never has the coaching staff had the opportunity to utilize all three weapons together, and the combination could be deadly for Penn’s Ivy opponents.
This season is their last chance to unleash The Stable. Jack and Colavita will graduate in May, leaving Marsh behind to take advantage of his fifth year of eligibility. But it won’t be the same, not without the Class of 2013 and their two Ivy championships. The goal is to get one more with their true entering class.
So what’s the plan of attack?
A balanced offense, an experienced o-line, health.
And a merciless running game.
“First thing first,” Marsh said of the Penn offense, “is definitely physicality.
“We want to be able to run the ball downhill and dominate people like that, but at the same time, we have a lot of weapons at every skill position.”
“Downhill” is a word that aptly describes this trio. With the ball in their hands, they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer from an opposing defender.
“We’re all more of strength runners,” Marsh continued. “We’re more power guys.”
Power they have — through 596 combined carries, The Stable averages 4.7 yards per attempt. But these thoroughbreds, these stallions, aren’t just rough-and-tumble.
“We’re all able to do stuff out of the backfield,” Marsh said. “[Colavita] probably blocks in the run game better than Jeff and I do … Jeff will make a little more moves and juke some guys out at times.”
Marsh has the ability to completely change a game. “He’s a consistent back with very good hands and … he’s pretty versatile out there,” Colavita said.
And if you could ever imagine a jockey for The Stable, Downs would be it. In his 14th year at Penn, never has a season gone by without a Penn rusher earning all-league honors. This season should be no exception, unless that exception comes in the form of having more than one.
“I’ve been telling them the last couple years, we’ve got three starting tailbacks on our team … it’s a luxury,” Downs said. “Those kids are so versatile, they can do so many different things.”
While Colavita earned his nickname, “Bam,” for that physical style (after the Flintstone’s Bam-Bam), his weaponry extends to his ability to make plays in the air. In 2011, he averaged 6.5 yards per reception with a long of 18, and Downs hinted at plans to continue that this season. Colavita can block in pass protection and stave off blitzers, too. Talk about balance.
In his freshman campaign, Marsh earned the nickname “The Diesel,” because he wasn’t really fast, so he would run [through] a wide-open hole where you or I could probably score a touchdown, he would get caught,” Downs explained with a laugh. But Marsh isn’t too shabby as a pass protector and slot receiver either. And though he may not be the fastest, he can run for a first down and more with three guys on his back.
Jack is the unsung hero of the group who never gives up on a run.
“He’s had some of the weirdest runs I’ve seen in my 13, going on 14 years here at Penn,” Downs said. “You see him in the pile spinning and turning and clawing on the ground, and he’s still running, where everybody thinks he’s down, and next he’s six yards later.”
The stallions in The Stable complement and challenge each other like no one else can. It’s friendly competition, as the unit shares the same goal. It’s no surprise, then, that they’re all friends off the field.
It’s an interesting dynamic: Jack, the eldest of the group, got married in the summer of 2011. He lives with his wife, Amber (known fondly on the team as Mrs. Jack), while Colavita and Marsh live in off-campus houses with teammates. But that doesn’t keep them apart.
“We do some Stable dinners with Mrs. Jack,” Marsh said. “She’s a saint, she makes great food … she also cuts our hair.”
For every Stable dinner, the group gets closer and wants more of the best for each other.
“It just adds onto the camaraderie that we have,” Colavita said. “We’re a very tight-knit group. There’s never been any animosity between any of us, and it just adds to our style of play.”
Marsh and Colavita also worked together this summer in New York, sitting next to each other in the office, playing basketball at Colavita’s brother’s home in Hoboken, N.J., and weightlifting together in the mornings with their boss.
In the offseason, lifting is crucial. Colavita can squat 570 pounds but expects he can max out even higher. And though the entire corps is known for their downhill running, it’s Bam’s specialty.
“I had to stop trying to make moves,” Colavita said, “because that’s not going to work for someone like me.”
No, Colavita doesn’t make moves, nor does he need to. He simply runs over and through the opponents.
It’s that power offense that this class has instilled in the attitude of all Penn running backs. Yet, the offensive philosophy is to be versatile.
“We’re very [versatile] as an offense,” Downs said. “The Stable themselves, what they’re gonna bring to it, should be a very nice complement this year.”
When the rushing attack is doing well, the passing game opens up. And when the aerial attack is doing well, the run game opens up. Of course, that’s what T he Stable wants.
They don’t care to be the stars, even if it meant the Quakers would still win the Ivy championship. They don’t even care for the statistics.
They care about helping the team and hoisting an Ivy trophy.
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