It wasn't the game or the setting they wanted to play in.
The lineup missing several key players.
And their pride, not to mention their motivation, was in question after a season that fell well below expectations.
But the USC Trojans found enough to finish on a high note, beating Boston College, 24-13, in the Emerald Bowl on Saturday at AT&T Park.
"We had an opportunity to play one more time and we needed to do something good," Coach Pete Carroll said.
With only a generously announced 40,121 on hand in the converted baseball stadium, the game had more of a high school feel than a bowl game.
But that didn't matter to the Trojans, who sloshed to victory on a rain-soaked field to put the finishing touch on a 9-4 season.
On a night when starting tailback Joe McKnight watched from a booth above the press box, freshman quarterback Matt Barkley accounted for three touchdowns, receiver Damian Williams turned in another outstanding bowl game performance and fullback Stanley Havili showed the talent that was mysteriously underutilized by the Trojans' brain trust throughout the season.
"We're used to playing in the Rose Bowl but we came out motivated to play good football," said Havili, who scored two touchdowns on pass plays in the first half.
Most of the pregame buzz centered on McKnight.
The junior's status had been in question since last week after USC compliance officials began an investigation of his use of a sport utility vehicle that is owned by a Santa Monica businessman with marketing interests.
McKnight arrived in the Bay Area on Wednesday night and practiced Thursday, but he did not suit up against the Eagles.
"There just wasn't enough time to gather enough information to make it really clear cut," Carroll said. "So the university felt like that's what had to happen."
USC did not miss its leading rusher, or three other players who were declared academically ineligible last week.
Havili turned one short pass into a 53-yard touchdown play in the first quarter and caught another short pass in the end zone early in the second, giving the Trojans all the points they would need.
Williams, who played pitch-and-catch with Mark Sanchez in last season's Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, did the same with freshman Barkley in what was probably Williams' final game with the Trojans.
Defensive end Everson Griffen announced after the game that he would make himself available for the NFL draft and Williams is expected to follow suit after catching 12 passes for 189 yards.
Williams made a spectacular catch for a 49-yard gain that set up Barkley's game-clinching sneak.
After the game, USC fans chanted "one more year" as Williams received the award as the game's most outstanding offensive player.
Said Barkley: "I second that."
Barkley finished his first season as a starter by completing 27 of 37 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions.
"I learned so much this year from the players, from experience," said Barkley, who passed for 15 touchdowns with 14 interceptions in 12 games. "I'm really excited about using this off-season to develop and grow even more. I really think I can expand in a lot of areas."
USC finally expanded its playbook to include a major role for Havili, who was academically ineligible to participate in last season's Rose Bowl.
Havili finished with a career-best six catches for 83 yards to complement the hard running of tailback Allen Bradford, who started in place of McKnight and rushed for 72 yards in 17 carries.
Havili's touchdowns gave the Trojans a 14-0 lead before the Eagles scored on a short touchdown run by Montel Harris, who gained 102 yards.
Boston College safety Wes Davis then intercepted a Barkley pass, setting up receiver Rich Gunnell's 61-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
USC extended its 14-13 halftime lead with Jordan Congdon's 38-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth, junior cornerback Shareece Wright intercepted a pass by Eagles quarterback Dave Shinskie.
On the ensuing play, Barkley lofted a high pass to Williams, who grabbed the ball between three defenders one yard shy of the goal line. Barkley sneaked in on the next play.
USC's defense did the rest.
"It's been a long, tough season," junior linebacker Michael Morgan said. "We've had our ups and downs so this was good for setting ourselves up for next year. We didn't want to finish with a loss and be thinking about that the whole off-season. Now we have to take this feeling and just go with it."
Junior linebacker Chris Galippo also was among the returning players who pointed to the 2010 season.
"There's nothing like winning the last game of the year," Galippo said. "It's going to be a long, fun off-season."