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Ground game a new route to af2 success Paul Sokoloski Opinion

In the middle of a knockdown, drag-out scrap with Manchester that knocked the loser out of first place, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers found themselves on the run.

They literally ran away from an air fight.

The Pioneers kept handing the ball to fullback Kirby Griffin.

They let quarterback Ryan Vena scramble.

They had wide receivers carrying the football out of the backfield.

By the end of Friday night, the Pioneers had called 16 running plays. That may not be a season’s worth of runs, but it’s at least a couple games’ worth.

“You want to have a balanced offense,” Vena said. “I know it’s tough to say that sometimes in arena football.”

Balance?

Vena’s idea of equality in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s offensive attack usually centers around distributing enough passes to keep his supremely talented receivers Rich Musinski, Irvin Campbell and J.J. Outlaw happy for the night.

They’ve helped the Pioneers average 274 yards of passing offense this season. Meanwhile, the Pioneers have generated most of this 388 points through six games behind 1,500-yard passer Vena and his strong and accurate right arm.

That’s the kind of air show that’s quite common in most indoor football leagues.

And it’s typical in the af2, where the Pioneers (5-1) now sit atop the East Division. The Pioneers called just 38 running plays through their first five games, and ranked eighth in the league with an average of 29 rushing yards per game. Manchester ranked seventh by averaging 30 rushing yards per game.

This is a high-scoring league where quarterbacks regularly surpass 250 yards passing while playing on a 50-yard field. And running backs seem to lose all complaints about lack of carries at the door.

“I’ve been in it two years, and it’s been like that since I’ve been here,” Griffin said of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s pass-heavy system. “When they give me the ball, I feel a little extra special.”

He must have felt like a prince Friday night.

With first place on the line, Griffin ran five times for 46 yards and scored touchdowns on runs of 6 and 13 yards. Vena scrambled eight times, scored on a 2-yard run and finished with a 10-yard run that sealed a 53-50 victory for the Pioneers. Together, receivers Outlaw and Campbell ran the ball three times and scored two touchdowns.

What in the name of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s high-powered passing game is going on at Wachovia Arena? Are the Pioneers ready to run amok?

Let’s not rush into anything.

It seems Manchester kept pulling one of its linebackers into pass coverage, baiting the Pioneers into a ground game while enticing them to pass up their air attack.

“When a team does that, they’re vacating the run. We made them pay,” said Pioneers coach Rich Ingold, whose team scored five of its eight touchdowns on running plays. “We gashed them up the gut. We had to do what we had to do.”

Quite simply, the Pioneers had to find another way to win besides relying on their prolific passing attack. In the process, they discovered they can.

“Coach always talks about how anything can happen,” Griffin said.

Sometimes, even a running game.

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