VALDOSTA — Friday’s Tift County-Lowndes football game at Martin Stadium did not, as anticipated, turn into a yardage battle between two of Georgia’s best running backs. However, everything else delivered in a clash of Class AAAAAA titans that will rate with the all-time classics.
Tyler Ajiero hauled in an 86-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Felton with 2:45 remaining in the game to give Tift a 21-17 victory. On the scoreboard, it was the knockout blow, but it was not until a roughing the punter penalty with seconds to go that Lowndes was finally and truly down for the count.
"I'm tickled as I can be," said Tift head coach Ashley Anders after the game. "Our coaching staff did an unbelievable job preparing."
The Vikings aimed to stop Tift's running back Mike Jones. They succeeded. Tift's goal was to stop Lowndes' star running back Travis Tisdale and make the remainder of the Vikings beat them. That was a success, too, and in the end, Lowndes fell short.
Jones had an unofficial 26 yards on 11 carries. Tisdale, who entered leading the classification in rushing yardage, was held to 87 yards on 22 tries. Half of those yards came in the fourth quarter, but none of his bursts went for more than 13 yards.
Jones' total was a season low. He had some help from Felton on the ground — 45 yards — but Tift was mostly bottled up in that department. The deciding factor in the contest was instead through the air and, ultimately, Lowndes' inability to catch up with Ajiero.
Ajiero had 205 yards on six catches and accounted for all three Blue Devils touchdowns, which came from 46, 51 and 86 yards out.
Lowndes struck first Friday.
The Vikings have hit the 60-point threshold three times this season, but the schools exchanged punts twice before either offense established footing.
Tiberius Drocea took a punt return 20 yards, allowing the Vikings to set up shop at Tift's 30. They converted fourth-and-short on an offisdes penalty before Jacurri Brown hit Dominique Marshall on a nine-yard pass to get down to the seven.
Brown took the next snap and kept it for the score, bursting through the middle of the Blue Devils' defensive line. Ashton Musgrove kicked the extra point at 3:53 in the first quarter and the Vikings had a 7-0 lead.
The lead failed to last long.
Tift got a first down on a short pass to Ajiero, which was coupled with a personal foul penalty against Lowndes that put the ball at midfield. Felton ran to the 46, then went to the air again. He double pumped then threw to Ajiero, who was five yards behind any defender.
Ajiero finished the 46-yard touchdown on the reception and Rosendo Ramirez came in for the tying extra point kick. Two minutes after Lowndes opened scoring, the game was squared at 7.
The momentum moved back to Lowndes in the second period. Returning quarterback Joe Almond had a rhythm going on runs and in the pocket, one of each good for a first down. Then another pass went to Cornelius Wright, who scored the Vikes' second touchdown from 23 yards out at 7:45.
This time, the score held for a while.
Lowndes almost pushed ahead further when Musgrove missed a 46-yard field goal as time expired on the half. The Vikings had driven from their own 15 to Tift’s 29 at the time of the miss.
Following intermission, Tift tried to cut into the lead, but Ramirez could not hit from 39 yards out.
Musgrove got a second chance later in the third period, this time making a 30-yard field goal try at 4:12 to go up 17-7, but it could have been much worse for the Devils.
Brown broke a 65-yard run around left end, moving the pigskin from the 21 to the 14 before he was tackled. He then barely missed another touchdown pass, the throw slightly too tall as it went off a receiver's fingertips in the end zone. Still, they were ahead by 10 points.
Perhaps energized by the close call, Felton immediately ripped off a 13-yard run after the kickoff put the ball at his own 20. Following positive yards from Airick DeLoach and Jameson Turner, Felton moved the chains again with a run, this one taking them to the 49.
On the next play, Felton and Ajiero connected under similar circumstances as before, a completion for a 51-yard touchdown at 2:55. Ramirez booted the extra point and the Blue Devils trailed 17-14, but were alive again.
The teams returned to jabs in this heavyweight title fight, which spilled into the fourth quarter. Wendell McClain prevented a Lowndes completion. Lowndes responded by tipping a Felton toss at the line of scrimmage.
The Vikings upped the ante. Tisdale showed signs of breaking loose and Joe Almond had a big gain, but, a pass to Wright went for negative yardage. Tisdale drew them closer to a first down, but on third down, Tift finally got pressure on Almond, who went to the turf at his own 49 courtesy of Jalon Miller and Charles King.
Lowndes was back to its own side of the field and more importantly, had to punt. Musgrove uncorked a beauty, the ball being downed at Tift's own 8.
"With that stop," said Anders, "that gave us a chance."
Tift made the most of it.
Felton went to Ajiero once for six yards on a short route. Then Ajiero went long again and Felton's strike reached him at midfield. A Vikings defender grabbed on momentarily, but Ajiero shook him loose, running up the visiting sidelines and into the north end zone on the play, which covered 86 yards.
Tift had a scare on the play, as penalty flags were thrown. Both wound up being dead ball violations, one against each side. The touchdown stood and Tift went up 21-17 at 2:55.
Time was beginning to be of the essence for Lowndes, who after being penalized on Ramirez's final extra point kick, had to start at their own 20.
The Vikings went to Tisdale. He got nothing on a run. Almond threw twice, Stephen Thomas breaking up the latter attempt. Lowndes had one timeout and just under two minutes to go. They opted to punt. Tift took over at its own 38 with 1:53 left.
Time ticked down, but the Devils could not advance far enough for a first down. Lowndes called its final time out with 26 seconds showing on the clock.
Colby Gann went out to punt and rolled the ball deep into Lowndes territory. His kick, however, did better than that. In their haste to block Gann's boot, the Vikings roughed him.
The penalty was enough for a first down. Tift kneeled on the ball once to end the game.
Tift coaches shared embraces after the game, as well as with players. Anders credited coordinators Marc Beach (offense) and Mike West (defense) for the win. Gameplans from each, he said, worked to perfection.
And far from being exhausted from the contest's intensity, Anders was energized.
Instead of losing years to this one, he said, "I got younger."
Felton finished with 277 passing yards, completing 10 of 16 attempts. Neither team suffered a turnover.
"It was a well-needed region win," Anders said. "We're going to enjoy this."
With the victory, the Blue Devils have conquered both Lowndes and Valdosta in the same season, the first time that has happened since 2006.
Tift will host Colquitt County next week. It will be Senior Night in Tift and will double as being a big step for the victor towards the Region 1 championship.