The Stevenson football team has a white board hanging in its facility with a list of the squad's goals. It's a reminder of what head coach Ed Hottle wants his players to achieve each time they take the field.
The expectations for the Mustangs' defenders include securing at least three takeaways per game, forcing a three-and-out if Stevenson's offense turns the ball over and not allowing any red-zone scores.
Through the team's first six games, Stevenson's defense has followed the team's plan. The Mustangs have stormed to a 5-1 record for the first time in the program's five-year history on the strength of the defense's dominance. In getting to 5-1, Stevenson allowed an average of 12.5 points per game.
"This is -- I don't want to say historical -- but we could probably make history if we continue to play the way we're playing," sophomore defensive back Antonio Johnson said. "We want to be the best defense in the nation."
Every practice, the Mustangs' defenders work on a tackling and turnover circuit for about 10 minutes. Hottle and his staff have also placed an increased emphasis on strength and conditioning.
During the program's initial seasons, the Mustangs had difficulty keeping pace with the power and depth of their opponents. Now, Hottle's defensive unit plays with confidence.
"It's becoming a point of personal pride for many of our players that, ‘Hey, we're going to go out and take the ball away,'" Hottle said. "That's a really neat thing to watch."
Through Oct. 10, Stevenson generated 24 turnovers -- seven fumble recoveries and 17 interceptions -- to rank second in takeaways among all 247 Division III football programs. The team managed to meet or exceed its three-turnover goal during four of its first six games.
One of the Mustangs' top performances came against Lebanon Valley in Annville, Pa., Sept. 19, when Stevenson recovered four fumbles and notched four interceptions to seal a 17-14 victory. The eight turnovers marked a program high.
Johnson grabbed two interceptions, and defensive backs Austin Tennessee and Billy Lewis each caught one. Senior linebacker Resheed Lashley, meanwhile, contributed two of Stevenson's six sacks on the day.
Lashley also forced a fumble with about five minutes left during the third quarter. Seconds later, he set what Hottle called a "touchdown block" to spring linebacker Cory Pietrzyk for the game-winning score.
"It never shows up in the stat line, and it probably doesn't show up in anything other than game film," Hottle said. "[The] thing we cover with our guys is the extraordinary effort."
Hottle credited Lashley as one of the team's main leaders by example. He had made a similar block on a Stevenson defensive touchdown the previous week.
When Lashley arrived at the Owings Mills, Md., campus four years ago, he watched as the new program tried to establish a footing in the Middle Atlantic Conference. Now in his final year, he's looking to fulfill his personal goal of helping the Mustangs sit atop the conference standings.
"If I'm doing my job as a senior, then nobody has a choice but to follow," Lashley said.
Johnson, though, is newer to the program. This season, he has seen his first extensive action since transferring from Brevard College two years ago.
Johnson and Lewis lead a Mustang's defense that is tied for first in interceptions.
"Being able to be a part of this defense, being a part of this team, my success right now is from the other 10 players on the field," Johnson said.
The Mustangs said their early surge this season goes back to the end of their 2014 campaign. Stevenson closed the year with three consecutive wins and outscored its opponents by an average of 21 points.
That's when defensive coordinator Dustin Johnson's new scheme started to click. Under the guidance of second-year coach Johnson, the defense has soared up the national rankings and positioned Stevenson for a chance at a playoff run.
But the Mustangs aren't satisfied with just statistics. They have bigger goals.
"[It has] really been simple from day one," Hottle said. "We want to go out and win every game and want to win a national championship. We want to be the number one defense in the country."