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Crusaders’ defense set to attack Cowboys

Successful football teams often form an identity, a singular skill that defines the squad and on which it can lean when times are tough.

And it should come as no surprise that Faith Lutheran’s personality has formed on the defensive side of the ball. After all, the Crusaders are coached by a former NFL defensive back.

“Defensively, I think the calling card has really been turnovers,” said Faith Lutheran coach Vernon Fox, who spent eight seasons in the NFL.

“Every single game except one, we’ve had at least four turnovers. In three of those games, we’ve had six plus. That’s just crazy to me. I haven’t seen that before.”

The Crusaders (9-1), who have forced 39 turnovers, will try to maintain that defensive identity when they host Chaparral (8-2) at 7 p.m. today in a Division I-A state quarterfinal.

“Takeaways are huge, because it gives the offense control of the ball again, gets them going again and it’s just a great momentum shift,” said senior cornerback Robby Schwartz, who leads the Crusaders with five interceptions. “We’re going to try to keep that up, and that’s with studying their tendencies. With tendencies, comes turnovers. That’s kind of the motto of our defense. So we’re going to keep flying around and having fun.”

Faith Lutheran has taken advantage of Fox’s experience as a defensive back to put together a strong secondary despite having two freshman starters. The Crusaders have 17 interceptions, including four by freshman cornerback Keegan Touchstone and two by freshman strong safety Taimani McKenzie.

Defensive backs coach Jeremy Avila, who played at Southern Utah, also has helped mold the secondary.

“Having them teaching us is just a great advantage,” Schwartz said. “They teach us a lot of little tricks and stuff, different ways to line up. We play head games with the quarterback. Having defensive back coaches who played at a very high level is very helpful. And turnovers are a huge part of our defense, as you can see.”

That defense has helped take pressure off the offense, giving the Crusaders short fields to work with and holding opponents to an average of 14.2 points. Since a 48-34 loss to Yuma (Ariz.) Catholic in the season opener, Faith Lutheran has allowed an average of 10.4 points.

But the Crusaders are no slouch on offense, either. Faith Lutheran has scored at least 30 points in every game, led by explosive junior running back Christian Marshall. Marshall has rushed for 1,154 yards and 21 touchdowns and also has caught 18 passes for 393 yards and three TDs.

“He’s just a real explosive guy who has a lot of natural instincts,” Fox said. “A lot of plays he creates on his own. Our guys do a great job of blocking, but once he gets in the open field, it’s really all Christian from there. He makes a couple guys miss, and then he has the speed to finish the runs.”

While Division I-A Sunrise League powers Desert Pines and Moapa Valley have spent all or most of the season ranked in the top 10 by area coaches, Faith Lutheran finally snuck into the rankings this week at No. 9.

But being overlooked isn’t something that worries the Crusaders.

“A lot of teams take us for granted,” senior right tackle Akiah Cepielik said. “I feel like we’re not taken very seriously in this league or in this city. It’s fine. I love coming back from behind and being the underdog. I love teams not taking us seriously, because it’s just another chance to prove ourselves.”

Chaparral also is looking for a chance to prove itself. The Cowboys are in the postseason for just the second time since 2007.

“They haven’t had the type of season they’ve had on accident,” Fox said.

“We’re certainly not underestimating them. We know they’re going to come in here fired up and ready to go. It’s a great opportunity for their program. We really don’t want things to end here, so we’re going to go out and do what we’ve got to do again to be 1-0 (for the week).”

Contact prep sports editor Damon Seiters at 702-380-4587 or dseiters@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DamonSeiters.

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