Stewart's runs keep Buffaloes roaming in the right direction

BOULDER, Colo. -- Colorado running back Rodney Stewart grew up 10 minutes from the Ohio State campus.

According to Stewart, the Buckeyes never showed any interest in recruiting him while he was playing at Brookhaven High School in Columbus, Ohio. Neither did Cincinnati, Indiana, Illinois or any of the other major FBS programs sprinkled around the Midwest.

In fact, until Buffaloes running backs coach Darian Hagan called Stewart a week before last February's national signing day, his only scholarship offers were from MAC schools Akron, Eastern Michigan and Toledo.

And Stewart wasn't even sure those schools would follow through on their promises in the end.

"It's like I was just meant to be here," Stewart said.

The Buffaloes are sure glad he's here. Stewart ran for 166 yards on 28 carries against No. 21 West Virginia on Thursday night, helping the Buffaloes upset the Mountaineers 17-14 in overtime at Folsom Field.

After squandering a 14-0 lead, Colorado won in overtime on Aric Goodman's 25-yard field goal, which came after West Virginia senior Pat McAfee's 23-yard attempt bounced off the left upright.

The Mountaineers (1-2), who were ranked No. 8 in the preseason, lost consecutive games for the first time since 2004. The Buffaloes are 3-0 for the first time since 2004.

"I think we're still building," Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said. "Nobody likes to say they're close, but I think we're a lot closer than a lot of people think. We're definitely going in the right direction, and I think we're getting really, really, really close."

The Buffaloes are closer to becoming a Big 12 contender again because Hawkins is willing to take chances on players like Stewart. Most college football coaches ignored Stewart because he's a very small running back. The Buffaloes list him at only 5-foot-6 and 175 pounds.

The Buffaloes discovered Stewart by happenstance more than anything else. While Hagan was recruiting linebacker Doug Rippy from Trotwood, Ohio, the Colorado assistant asked Rippy if he knew of any tailback prospects. Rippy told Hagan that Stewart was the fastest runner he'd ever seen.

Stewart's high school coaches sent a highlight tape to Colorado. It didn't take Hawkins long to offer Stewart a scholarship.

"What I hate about life is people are always trying to put things into a box," Hawkins said. "I'm all about getting out of the box. I know guys are supposed to be a certain kind of size, but I didn't care. That kid had the most unbelievable highlight film. He had the most 60- and 70-yard runs I'd ever seen. That tape went on forever."

Stewart added a few more highlight runs to his résumé against West Virginia. His 166 yards were the third most by a Colorado freshman and the most since 1991.

Oddly enough, Stewart wasn't supposed to be the Colorado freshman who burst onto the scene this season. Darrell Scott, from Ventura, Calif., was ranked the country's No. 1 tailback prospect by most recruiting services. Scott had more than 70 scholarship offers, but chose the Buffaloes, in part, because sophomore receiver Josh Smith is his uncle.

But as soon as the Buffaloes opened training camp, Hawkins realized he'd uncovered something special in Stewart.

"You guys have seen glimpses of him," Hawkins told reporters Thursday night. "You knew it was coming. That's the stuff we saw coming. You never know when those freshmen are going to grow up. The exciting thing is he didn't turn it over."

Three games into the season, the Buffaloes are slowly growing up, too. The Colorado defense allowed 311 rushing yards, including 148 by Mountaineers quarterback Pat White. He ran for two touchdowns to bring West Virginia back from an early 14-0 deficit, but the Buffaloes contained him when it mattered most. White completed 10 of 14 passes for only 43 yards.

"I thought our defense played pretty well," Hawkins said. "Pat made a couple of big plays, but he's a great player. You're not going to shut down Michael Jordan; he's going to make some shots on you. … They're so good, you make one mistake and it's over. It's not a 7-yard gain -- it's to the house."

Colorado took West Virginia's best shots and kept fighting back, even as its offense continuously shot itself in the foot. Leading 14-0 early in the second quarter, the Buffaloes drove into West Virginia territory. But quarterback Cody Hawkins threw a pass that was intercepted by linebacker Reed Williams. The Buffaloes drove to the Mountaineers' 16 on their next possession, but Hawkins was sacked and lost a fumble.

"The artist in you would like to [score more points]," Dan Hawkins said. "Misti's son had a hand in not getting those points."

Misti Hawkins, the coach's wife and the quarterback's mother, stood near the TV cameras and quickly corrected her husband.

"Yeah, but he was responsible for getting the others," she said.

So was Stewart, the smallest player on the field and Colorado's newest star.

"It's the best moment of my life," Stewart said. "There were a lot of people telling me I was too small. Size doesn't mean anything. The difference between 5-6 and 5-8 is nothing. Everybody can do anything. You've just got to have heart."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.