TUNNEL HILL, Ga. (WRCB) -- Ridgeland enjoyed a breakthrough season last fall en route to a state championship game appearance.
This year with the Panthers struggling, another area team appears primed to carry the Region 7B-AAAA torch on a deep postseason run.
Northwest Whitfield (5-0, 1-0) remains unblemished at the midway point of the GHSA season, but the Bruins may face their stiffest test yet against arch rival Dalton (3-2, 1-0) in the Friday Night Football Game of the Week.
"This game epitomize's what high school football is all about," said Dalton head coach Matt Land. "These kids play other sports against each other or with each other. Our fans go to church and work with each other, so you're just seeing each other all the time and this game gives us all a chance to come together and celebrate the athletic talent of these young men."
The long-running series between the two Whitfield County neighbors was halted for two years when reclassification separated them into different regions. They resumed the rivalry last year in Dalton, where the Catamounts picked up a 24-19 win.
This year, it's a matchup that could very well determine the sub-region title.
"There was just something missing those two years we didn't play," said Northwest coach Josh Robinson. "It certainly makes for excitement throughout the community and gives our kids an unbelievable experience, especially with the crowd we're hoping to have here Friday night.
"The fact that it has such an impact on things in the region race just makes it that much better."
Five games into the season, the Bruins have been scoring early and scoring often to the tune of 43.6 points per game, including three straight contests of at least 49 points.
Caleb Shiflett mans the controls for a potent spread attack that has flashed the ability to score from every spot on the field, with play-making receivers Tevin McDaniel and Andy Whisenant aiding game-breaking running back Jacob Webb.
"We have a lot of talented players at the skill positions and five experienced offensive linemen that have really performed well for us," said first-year offensive coordinator David Crane. "We were spread, no-huddle last year, but we're trying to go at an even faster tempo this year."
In last week's 49-7 rout of Heritage, Shiflett tied his own single-game school record with five touchdown passes, including three to McDaniel. McDaniel also returned an interception for a score, though coaches were quick to point out the speedy wideout is hardly a one-man show.
"No matter what, though, we want to have balance, and I think we've done that. We only have about 30 more passing yards than we do rushing yards through five games, I'd say that's pretty balanced."
That balance is the biggest source of pride for Robinson, who called this the most unselfish team he's ever coached.
"I really feel this team has 'it.' It's really hard to describe what 'it' is, but I think they get that it's not about each individual guy," Robinson said. "Personal statistics and success really seem to be irrelevant to them. They just want to win as a team."
It was defense the defined last year's Catamount win in the rivalry, and the key contributor to that victory returns.
Dalton linebacker Eder Mora recorded double-digit tackles, had a late interception and recovered an onside kick to seal the win. This year, Mora leads a unit that has allowed just 17 points in its last three games, including two shutouts.
"Really, every game should be a shutout," Mora said. "We need to have that mentality every week and believe in what the coaches tell us to do. If we do that, it should be a shutout every week."
Land has made sure to share the Bruins' offensive success with his team. He believes the impressive numbers will serve as motivation for the Catamounts, who focus on a much different style of play.
"Here at Dalton it is defense," Land said. "You're never going to come here and hear us talking about 1,000-yard offenses and 600-yard passers in a single game. That's just not who we are and how we play.
"We're going to be traditional. We're going to be downhill and smashmouth. At the end of the day, that starts with defense."
The Catamounts' offense took a huge hit two weeks ago when starting quarterback Jase Chastain was lost for the season with a broken leg, but backup Payton Veraldi, who was already getting a few snaps alongside Chastain, has proven more than capable of filling the role.
"I've really just had to step up my studying," said Veraldi. "I'm watching a lot more film and focusing on more little things, but I love every minute of it."
Chastain, who is expected back in 6-to-8 weeks, was more of a dual-threat quarterback compared to Veraldi, a junior known more as a pocket passer. However, Land says coaches are not shrinking the gameplan now that only one quarterback is taking the snaps.
In fact, he's more excited every week about Veraldi's growing confidence and ability.
"He's been to all those combines and is nationally-ranked as a passer, so it's been great for us to always utilize that part of his game," Land said. "But now he's become more of a runner. He had about 60 carries last week on ten carries, so he's a guy opponents really will have to factor into the equation not just for his arm, but also his legs."
It also helps that workhorse tailback Kelvis Rhodes is back close to full health after missing the first two games with an injury. The Catamounts lost those early road matchups at Ringgold and Calhoun, but have since reeled off three straight victories.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET from Bruin Stadium. Paul Shahen and Jordan Tippit will be live with coverage on Week 7 of Friday Night Football, starting at 11:10 p.m. ET.
The game will also be the site of Channel 3's "Friday Night Food Fight," a food drive to benefit food banks in North Georgia. Fans are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items or cash donations to the game.