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To cut a long story short, the field is better this time

Times Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Most of USC’s players strolled casually onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium on Friday for the Trojans’ walk-through before today’s game against the Fighting Irish.

But Desmond Reed never broke stride as he sprinted to the far end zone on grass significantly shorter and more manicured than it was in 2005, when Reed suffered torn right knee ligaments and nerve damage while turning to field a ball on a kickoff return.

Reed said last year he thought the grass was grown long intentionally to slow down the Trojans and that it caused his injury.

“They actually cut it,” defensive line coach Dave Watson said.

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Said Dennis Slutak, USC’s director of football operations: “You could actually hit a golf ball out of this.”

Coach Pete Carroll said this week that the controversy over the length of the grass in 2005 “was really blown out of proportion,” and that it was not a tactic the Irish had used to gain an advantage.

But on Friday, after walking the field, Carroll said he was surprised it did not have a uniform feel.

“I don’t understand why it’s like that, I mean who plays here?” he said. “They sharing it with a local JC or something?”

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Near the end of Notre Dame’s traditional pep rally on Friday night, Irish Coach Charlie Weis told the crowd the reason the grass was shorter was, “because I don’t want to hear any more excuses [Saturday] afternoon.”

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USC players and team personnel were still talking about Thursday night’s harrowing plane ride into South Bend, which featured a major drop during a lightning storm.

Several passengers were thrown from their seats and hit their heads on the ceiling during an initial approach that was aborted before the plane circled and landed safely.

“There was a bunch of guys that couldn’t wait to get down that ramp and get their feet on the ground,” Carroll said. “Some of the guys were kissing the ground.

“We’re thrilled to be here. I don’t know if anybody’s going to get on the plane on the way home, though.”

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Notre Dame will wear green jerseys that are replicas of the ones made famous by its 1977 national champions.

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Notre Dame warmed up in its regular dark blue jerseys before its 1977 game against USC, then emerged from the locker room in the green jerseys with gold numbers and won, 49-19, behind quarterback Joe Montana.

“These uniforms are ugly, but what the players like about them is that they’re throwbacks,” Weis said. “Because they’re throwbacks, they’re unique.

“Remember what those jerseys looked like? Remember those ugly pants? That’s what they have to wear this week. What I didn’t want to do is, I didn’t want to make a big deal about using it more as a motivational thing. This is in respect to honor that ’77 team.”

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At the start of USC’s walk-through, offensive lineman Thomas Herring shouted, ‘Reenact it! Reenact it!” then lined up some teammates and proceeded to play the part of former quarterback Matt Leinart falling into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame in 2005. . . . Carroll said offensive tackle Sam Baker probably would not play and that guard Chilo Rachal was closer to being able to play.

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gary.klein@latimes.com

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KEYS TO THE GAME

No. 13 USC (5-1) at Notre Dame (1-6)

Today, 12:30 p.m., South Bend, Ind.

TV: Channel 4 Radio: 710, 1330

1 Leading men. USC’s Mark Sanchez makes his second start at quarterback, his first on the road. Sanchez needs to cut down on the mistakes he made in his starting debut last week against Arizona but continue to utilize his mobility to his advantage. Junior Evan Sharpley starts at quarterback for the first time for Notre Dame.

2 Offensive line. Redshirt freshman Butch Lewis is expected to start at left tackle in place of All-American Sam Baker and he must improve on last week’s emergency effort. Notre Dame has given up 34 sacks, a trend that USC defensive linemen expect to continue.

3 Turnovers. USC learned against Stanford that anything can happen when the ball is given away. The Trojans won the turnover battle last week against Arizona and must repeat that feat against Notre Dame. Sanchez must avoid interceptions and Joe McKnight and other offensive players must not fumble.

-- Gary Klein


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