TIFTON - Tift County gave No. 1 Lee County all it wanted and then some Friday night before falling by a 23-16 score.
Lee, whose backfield contained two SEC football commits, was held to an unofficial 32 rushing yards. Almost all of those came on a second quarter run by Caleb McDowell, a drive that ended in a missed field goal by the visiting Trojans.
Tift never led in the game, but Lee was never comfortable. For all but nine minutes, the squads were separated by seven points or less.
Two quick touchdowns in the fourth quarter turned out to be the deciding margin after the Devils tied it 9-9 in the third.
Lee had flipped the field on Tift at the start of the quarter. The Blue Devils had been pinned on a Wyatt Hurst punt on their own 3. While Zach Carter had been able to push the ball to the 10, it wasn't enough to move the first down sticks and Azaria Smith had to punt it back.
The Trojans took over possession at midfield. J.D. Bengston knocked Chauncey Magwood for a loss on the first snap, but Magwood recovered to find McDowell on a short pass. The speedy McDowell found an opening on the right side of the field and did not stop until he reached the end zone 49 yards later.
Alex Collins' kick was good and Lee went ahead 16-9 with 10 minutes to play.
The score changed again soon after Tift was stopped on downs at their own 43.
On 3rd-and-9 Magwood again went to the air, spotting David Goodwin near the left sideline. Goodwin scored from 42 yards out and after Collins' kick at 6:45, the score was now 23-9.
The Blue Devils weren't done.
A long return by Timothy Wright allowed Tift to start at its own 37. After a short loss on a run, Smith found Deontae Dean on an 11-yard pass. That's when Lee County began getting friendly with penalty flags.
The Trojans were flagged for a late hit out of bounds, resulting in 15 yards. Two snaps later came an unsportsmanlike penalty for 15 more.
Will Dean entered the game at quarterback during the drive and he helped propel it further as the Trojans roughed him on a pass attempt, moving the ball to the 16. Dean threw incomplete on second down. Two penalties on Lee followed, one for pass interference, another for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Being inside the 20, each went for half the distance to goal, resulting in a first down at the 4. Chrishon Stephens gained a yard, then bolted through a large hole created by the left side of the line. He tumbled into the end zone at 2:56.
Pedro Mendoza's kick was good. With time slipping away, head coach Ashley Anders decided to try an onside kick. It was not successful. Lee picked up a last first down and ran out the clock.
Homecoming and the Devils' 2020 debut at home didn't exactly get off on the right foot.
Lee blocked a punt early in the first quarter and it rolled back through the end zone for a safety.
The ensuing drive was a long one - the second longest by either team Friday - 10 plays and ranged from the Devils' 37 to beyond the stripes. Seven of them were inside the 15.
Lee had a Magwood touchdown wiped out on a hold and though the Blue Devils kept denying their guests, McDowell finally was able to barely angle the ball over the goal line during a tackle.
Collins' kick was true and the Trojans' lead was up 9-0.
Tift picked up its initial first down later in the first quarter on a 26-yard gain by Stephens, but it was the defense who put the first points on the scoreboard.
After holding Lee inside its own 20, the Trojans decided to punt. The snap was high and rolled out of the end zone at 11:04 in the second before either team could lay a hand on it.
The 9-2 score held for the remainder of the half, even as a Lee drive featured a 23-yard run by McDowell and a 45-yard pass from Magwood to Jevelle Furgerson. It ended on the 19 with a missed field goal.
Tift's offense began clicking in the third. The defense naturally had a big hand in sparking it.
Daniel Whitehead recovered a fumble at Tift's 40.
Smith only needed a few seconds to find Tyler Parker on a crossing route. Parker picked up speed as he ran in the direction of the student section and completed the 60-yard touchdown at 9:59.
Mendoza then tied the game with a kick.
The teams played for field position for the remainder of the third, but with both defenses not budging, it was not until Hurst kicked Tift deep that it had an effect.
Tift's quarterbacks combined to complete 5 of 18 passes for 81 yards. The biggest chunk came from Parker, whose one reception went for 60 yards and a score.
On the ground, Stephens led the way with an unofficial 73 yards on 13 attempts. He also had a touchdown.
Lee had no ground attack against Tift. McDowell ran 17 times and picked up 13 yards. Magwood's seven rushes gained only two yards. Only Preston Simmons had any luck, getting 24 positive yards.
Tift will stay at home next week, taking on the Perry Panthers in the first ever showdown between the two schools. Perry defeated Spalding Friday, 42-11, and is now 2-3 on the year.