SAN FRANCISCO -- The mud had dried on receiver Damian Williams' uniform, turning a chalky tan color and giving him the look of a man who had been crawling through the muck for hours. His smile was pure white.
Maybe it was the perfect image for USC's tumultuous 2009 season.
In the end, the staggering behemoth shook off the scrappy overachievers on a sloppy field, as USC steadied itself with a 24-13 victory over Boston College in the Emerald Bowl on Saturday night.
It wasn't a particularly sunny week in the Bay Area for the Trojans, who were without four key players sidelined by off-the-field troubles. But it ended well, with a satisfying victory over a hardworking, outmanned Eagles team.
"There was a lot of distraction, a lot of adversity going into this thing, most of it self-inflicted," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "I'm very happy with the way we turned our focus and the way we accomplished a number of things internally."
Carroll had spent more time this week answering questions about NCAA rules and academic improprieties than he had about game plans and depth charts.
The Trojans played without leading rusher Joe McKnight, who practiced earlier in the week. Investigators are looking into whether McKnight violated NCAA rules by driving a sport-utility vehicle owned by a Santa Monica businessman.
The Trojans (9-4) also were without standout tight end Anthony McCoy, starting right tackle Tyron Smith and reserve defensive tackle Averell Spicer, all of whom were academically ineligible.
Many people wondered whether USC would lose interest in this bowl game after those blows and after having played in BCS bowls each of the previous seven seasons.
"We rallied around each other," Williams said. "We took a couple off the chin this year that maybe we shouldn't have lost, but we played stiff competition. We just kept finding a way."
Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley had one of his better performances in an up-and-down season, completing 27 of 37 passes for 350 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Without McCoy, he devoted a lot of his attention to Williams, who caught 12 passes for 189 yards.
Fullback Stanley Havili also helped pick up the slack by catching a pair of touchdown passes, including a 53-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Havili broke a tackle from Boston College's freshman All-American linebacker, Luke Kuechly, on his way to the end zone.
Kuechly finished with a game-high 16 tackles.
Boston College (8-5) had plenty of chances to complete its season-long ascent from dim early expectations and set a positive storyline for its offseason. The Eagles rallied from a 14-0 hole with two unanswered first-half touchdowns.
But crucial mistakes snuffed out those upset thoughts. In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie underthrew a pass that was picked off by USC cornerback Shareece Wright, who had just returned from his own academic sabbatical.
The Trojans scored two plays later -- following a 49-yard pass from Barkley to a triple-teamed Williams -- to effectively wrap it up.
"We were right with them, and they're a big-time program," Shinskie said. "We thought we were going to come out strong in the second half and we did. It's just frustrating. That's the only word you can say."
Media members who cover the ACC picked Boston College to finish last in the Atlantic Division, but the Eagles went 5-3 in their conference to earn their 11th straight bowl bid.
The Eagles appear to be an improving team. It's unclear whether the same can be said for USC, which again could be rocked by early departures for the NFL. Junior defensive end Everson Griffen announced after the game that he would forgo his senior season to enter this spring's draft. Williams said he remained undecided.
Williams and McKnight are widely expected to enter the NFL draft.