ROSSVILLE, Ga. (WRCB) -- Mark Mariakis doesn't like to use the term "rivalry" if both sides haven't enjoyed success in a particular matchup over the years.
For this one, though, he may make an exception.
The Panthers' home date with Dalton was overwhelmingly selected as the Week 7 Friday Night Football Game of the Week by voters on Channel 3's Facebook page. The two teams will meet at 7:30 p.m. ET Friday at Bower and Painter Field.
"I've always said it's not a rivalry until you can beat a team consistently and then go back and forth, and we've never really done that (against Dalton)," Mariakis said.
The series history is lopsided, but Ridgeland's emergence as a state power has intensified the rivalry since the two were paired in the same region two years ago.
Dalton (2-2) won the first 19 meetings between the two North Georgia powers until Ridgeland finally broke through with a 21-0 shutout in 2010. The Panthers (3-1) nearly made it two in a row last year, but couldn't complete a second-half comeback in a 28-21 loss at Dalton's Harmon Field.
"We've beaten them over the years, but they're getting more talent and getting better every year. And as all these other programs get better, it's only going to make our program better having to play them," said Dalton coach Matt Land. "They're probably the fastest team we'll see during the regular season, so this gives us a chance to see that speed."
This year's meeting, which is the sub-region opener for both, will likely go a long way to deciding the Region 7-AAAA sub-region champion and playoff positioning, with both teams tabbed as the preseason favorites.
A quartet of talented running backs fuel Ridgeland's powerful ground game, which is averaging nearly 400 yards per contest.
"They're going to do what they do, and they just kind of dare you to stop them," Land said.
Wingbacks Vonn Bell, Shaqualm McCoy and Noah Cooper and fullback Darrell Bridges have taken turns shouldering the load in the season's first four games. Each has flashed big-play ability, but also a team-first demeanor needed in a system that spreads the carries around.
"The running game is what we hang our hat on, and we've been able to have success with it so far. We've got backs that can make plays and a big line that moves well, so we just try to do what we do well," Mariakis said. "And we've got some really humble guys. They understand the overall goal is to win football games and have team success, so they know everybody's role."
Bell, McCoy and Bridges have dubbed themselves "Earth, Wind and Fire" to describe their contrasting, yet complimentary running styles.
"We hit the ground running with it," Bell said with a smile.
Bridges is "Earth" as the physical fullback, while McCoy's speed earned him "Wind." Bell, one of the nation's top safety recruits, grabbed "Fire" because of his knack for changing games in a single play.
"It's been fun sharing carries with these guys because any one of us can break a touchdown at any moment," bell said.
Dalton isn't without talent, especially in the backfield.
Workhorse tailback Kelvis Rhodes has been one of the area's top rushers early in 2012, including a 215-yard, six-touchdown performance in a Week 2 loss to Calhoun and a 177-yard outing in the season-opener at Ringgold.
"It's been a great year. My O-line has been great. They keep opening up holes and stepping up, and I learned a lot from (Tre Beck and Tre Bonds) last year while I was playing behind them," Rhodes said. "I just try to keep learning my way through games and not make bad decisions. My goal was just to contribute and be the best player I could be."
Senior quarterback Cole Calfee is an experienced leader for the Catamounts' attack, which also features do-it-all receiver and return-threat Brandon Dale.
"We'll try to use the pass to set up the run because there's a lot of teams that will put nine in the box against us," Land said. "Running for us is who we are at Dalton, and always has been, but we'll throw it, too, to keep it balanced because that's what you have to be if you want to have success in the playoffs."
The Catamounts, who like Ridgeland lost a shootout to Class AA's top-ranked Calhoun, are also highly motivated after an ugly showing in last week's 35-7 home loss to Cass. Land said the team can't wait to get that taste out of its mouth.
Paul Shahen and Jordan Tippitt will be live in Rossville all day Friday leading up to their full post-game coverage of the Game of the Week on Channel 3's award-winning Friday Night Football, which starts at 11:10 p.m. ET.
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