STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Michigan's defense can help give any opponent a confidence-boost -- even one led by a former walk-on making his first career start.
Against the Wolverines, virtual unknown quarterback Matthew McGloin had Penn State's offense humming along like a high-octane juggernaut.
McGloin deftly guided the Nittany Lions with 250 passing yards and a score, Evan Royster ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns and the defense staved off a second-half rally led by dual-threat star Denard Robinson for a 41-31 win Saturday night.
"That's about as well as we can play ... Mac had a lot to do with it," said coach Joe Paterno, who got his 399th career win. It was the first start at quarterback for a former walk-on in JoePa's 45 years on the sideline -- necessitated by a possible head injury that limited freshman starter Rob Bolden in practice this week.
After a two-game slide, things are looking up again in Happy Valley after the Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) won their second straight and Royster broke the school career rushing record of 3,398 held for nearly three decades by Hall of Famer Curt Warner.
They're fretting again in Ann Arbor after a third straight loss for the Wolverines (5-3, 1-3) following a 5-0 start. Michigan fans were hoping Saturday would be the night the Wolverines would get a sixth win and become bowl eligible for the first time in coach Rich Rodriguez's three-year tenure.
Instead, he's back on the coaching hot seat. Again.
Blame it on the defense. Again.
"We're doing a good job of making a lot of quarterbacks look pretty good," Rodriguez said.
Opposing tailbacks, too. Royster had 99 yards and two scores in the first half alone, while an offensive line maligned all season for a choppy running game opened up holes for the senior tailback.
If not for Robinson, this might have been a blowout.
He was a virtual one-man gang, running for 191 yards and three scores on 27 carries, while throwing for 190 and a score. A bye the previous week helped him recover from right shoulder and left knee injuries, though Rodriguez said after the game the shoulder still wasn't 100 percent.
"That kid is a heck of a football player," Paterno said, "that Robinson kid."
Down by 21 for much of the second half, Robinson did his best to spark the Wolverines, including a 60-yard touchdown pass to wide-open tight end Kevin Koger and a 1-yard touchdown plunge on his own in the third quarter.
Robinson's 4-yard scoring run -- his third of the night -- got Michigan within 38-31 with 9:25 to go and left most of the 108,000-plus fans at Beaver Stadium nervous in their seats.
But Collin Wagner hit a 42-yard field goal to make it a two-possession game, and Robinson misfired on a fourth down pass on Michigan's next series with less than 5 minutes left.
Penn State's defense made enough plays to handcuff the Wolverines early, while the offense stomped all over the Michigan defense.
They accomplished it with McGloin at quarterback with Bolden held back after his injury last week at Minnesota. Bolden dressed and warmed up, but didn't take his usual allotment of snaps in practice this week.
McGloin finished 17 of 28 passing. Both he and Paterno sidestepped questions about a possible quarterback controversy if Bolden is ready to go for next week's home game against Northwestern.
"I haven't got the slightest idea, let me just enjoy this one," Paterno pleaded.
With a backup calling the plays, JoePa went old school on offense.
Twenty-nine handoffs to Royster. Screens to tailbacks. Passes over the middle to the team's most reliable target, 6-foot-6 receiver Brett Brackett. And just the right number of shots downfield to keep the defense honest.
"The thing is, we didn't do anything silly out there," Paterno said. "I think that's a sign of growing up."
After a Michigan field goal cut the lead to 14-10 with 8:43 left in the second, Penn State followed with an 11-play, 74-yard drive on which Royster gained 33 yards on five carries to set up McGloin's keeper from a yard out for an 11-point lead.
The creaky Beaver Stadium stands rocked as fans celebrated on the metal bleachers, waving their white pom-poms in the air. A late-arriving student section got in on the act by wearing all white for a signature Happy Valley "Whiteout."
Devon Smith's 22-yard return had Penn State starting another drive at the Michigan 37, and McGloin hit Graham Zug with a perfectly thrown ball just over safety Ray Vinopal at the front corner of the end zone for a 28-10 lead.
"The frustrating thing is it's not just one person and it's usually a different thing," Rodriguez said. "The inconsistency is what's frustrating for everybody. We just have to play better."
Michigan State's roster is largely built of interchangeable parts, but they don't make many parts that fit the mold of Malik McDowell.
In 100 days, the ACC will face an unusually important opening weekend, with its two top national contenders facing huge nonconference tests.
Nick Chubb continued to rehab is knee but is apparently ahead of schedule. Still, the staff is going to be very cautious with his return this fall.
Michigan has a number of contenders for "most indispensable" status, but one stands out for being more difficult to replace than any of the others.
Are Oklahoma's Josh Heupel and TCU's Trevone Boykin among the top five quarterbacks in Big 12 history? A case can be made for both players.
NC State has been transfer-quarterback heavy since Dave Doeren took over, with Boise State's Ryan Finley the latest transfer to come aboard.