PASADENA, Calif. -- All season long, the Penn State formula was to start slow, fall behind, rally in the second half and then upset a favored opponent, whether it was Ohio State in October or Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
For much of a rare overcast afternoon at the Rose Bowl, it looked like the Lions might be adding another comeback saga to their tale.
Instead, this time it was Southern California that flipped the script.
After blowing a 13-0 lead and seeing Penn State take a 14-point lead with touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions, including scores on three straight offensive plays in the third quarter, the Trojans shut the Nittany Lions down in the fourth quarter and won the highest scoring Rose Bowl ever on a final-play, 46-yard field goal by Matt Boermeester that resulted in a 52-49 victory.
"Keep competing and good things will happen to you," Trojans coach Clay Helton said.
Penn State, which overcame double-digit deficits in four of its nine consecutive victories before Monday, could not contain or even slow down Sam Darnold, USC's freshman quarterback who completed 33 of 53 passes for 453 yards and five touchdowns.
In the fourth quarter alone, Darnold was 10 of 10 for 135 yards and also picked up valuable yardage on back-to-back pass interference penalties.
Even in a game with so much scoring, the difference, ultimately, was turnovers.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw three interceptions -- two of them in the first three minutes of the game as Penn State continued its history of slow starts, and another on a third down pass in the final minute by Leon McQuay that set up the winning kick.
McQuay had dropped an interception on the previous play but didn't blow his second chance, returning it 32 yards to the Penn State 33-yard line with 27 seconds remaining.
Southern Cal was out of timeouts, but one running play and one spike left enough time for Boermeester to kick the winning points.
"It was an amazing game," said Helton, whose team now has won nine consecutive games after starting the season 1-3. "It's what fairy tales are made of."
And nightmares. McSorley, who had thrown only two interceptions in the last eight games, had four touchdown passes to go with his three picks.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 194 yards, scored three touchdowns but gained only 14 yards on nine carries in the fourth quarter.
Even by Penn State's slow-start standards, the beginning of the game was painful. Their returners had trouble grabbing the opening kickoff and that forced the Nittany Lions to start at the 3-yard line.
Then McSorley threw interceptions on his first two pass attempts, in the game's first three minutes.
But after early in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions' offense was literally unstoppable. In the second and third quarters, Penn State made 20 first downs, gained 413 yards and outscored USC 49-22.
Unfortunately for the Lions, the first and fourth quarters counted, too.
"I know this probably sounds crazy," Penn State coach James Franklin said, "but I couldn't be any more proud sitting here tonight with a win."
While their inability to slow down the USC passing game was clearly the biggest identifiable factor in the loss, the Lions might spend some time in the coming days questioning their offensive strategy with a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
Penn State went strangely conservative, gained only 14 yards and made one first down in the fourth quarter, and did not even attempt to throw the ball down the field until the last minute.
Of course, since that resulted in the fateful final interception, a case could be made that maybe the Nittany Lions should have remained conservative a little longer.
--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.