STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -- From his perch in the press box, Joe Paterno looked pensive, even a little nervous at times.
He had reason to worry.
Anthony Morelli threw for two touchdowns and the defense clamped down after halftime as the Nittany Lions overcame four first-half fumbles to defeat Michigan State, 17-13 on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
It wasn't until Tim Shaw's sack of Spartans quarterback Brian Hoyer with less than 3 minutes left in the game that Paterno and his Nittany Lions (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) could breathe easy. It was Paterno's first game back at the stadium since the 79-year-old coach broke his left leg on Nov. 4.
"To drop the ball four times and to be in that football game, it's a tribute to our defense and how they played," said offensive coordinator Galen Hall, who was joined in the press box on Saturday by Paterno.
"Anytime you have that many turnovers, you have a very good chance of getting beat," Hall said.
Instead, Michigan State finished the regular season having lost four straight. The Spartans (4-8, 1-7) were foiled by mistakes of their own -- including a couple of dropped passes, a blocked punt and two missed field goals -- and head coach John L. Smith's four-year tenure ended on a down note.
Smith found out two weeks ago that his bosses didn't want him back in 2007.
"A couple of little different things and of course we win," Smith said. "That's kind of been the story the whole year."
Trailing the entire first half, Penn State took a 14-13 lead after Morelli found Jordan Norwood for a 6-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter. Kevin Kelly booted a 45-yard field goal with 4:28 remaining in the fourth quarter to give Penn State a four-point cushion.
Paterno watched from the press box after missing last week's game against Temple -- the first JoePa-less contest for Penn State since 1977. The coach broke the shinbone and tore two knee ligaments in his left leg on Nov. 4 at Wisconsin, and had surgery the following day.
Doctors have said that Paterno must stay off his feet for at least another month.
"Joe was up in the box and had observations, saw some things and it worked," Hall said. "It was good to have him up there .... He was very much involved in the game."
He may not have been pleased with the first 30 minutes.
Penn State fumbled four times in the first half, while Michigan State's offense was able to move the ball easily at times on the stingy Penn State defense even without injured starting quarterback Drew Stanton, who missed his final collegiate game.
Stanton's streak of 24 straight starts was snapped. He had dizziness and headaches after getting knocked out of last week's loss to Minnesota by a hit so hard that it collapsed part of his helmet.
Hoyer filled in admirably, completing 30 of 61 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown. Michigan State confused Penn State early at points with short passes and crossing routes.
Morelli finished 17-of-37 for 220 yards, while Tony Hunt ran for 130 yards on 29 carries for Penn State. But Morelli and Hunt both fumbled twice in the first half.