BOULDER, COLO. -- Frustrated at missing the opener because of a disciplinary suspension, Eric Bieniemy couldn't be denied when he saw his first action of the 1990 season.

Bieniemy, Colorado's senior tailback, rushed for 149 yards and all three of his team's touchdowns Thursday night, including a one-yard dive with 12 seconds left as the sixth-ranked Buffaloes squeaked past Stanford, 21-17.

Colorado spotted Stanford a 14-0 first-quarter lead, bounced back to tie on Bieniemy's touchdown runs of 18 and 36 yards in the third quarter, then fell behind again, 17-14, on a 27-yard field goal by John Hopkins with 4:17 to play.

Colorado responded with an 80-yard, 15-play drive for the clinching score. And faced in the closing seconds with the choice of a sure field goal for a tie or going for the winning touchdown, the Buffaloes did not hesitate. Colorado, after all, had already been tied by Tennessee, 31-31, in its opener, and found that experience unsavory.

"No question, we were going to go for {the touchdown}," Colorado Coach Bill McCartney said. "If it were fourth and eight, we still would have gone for it. We had it in our minds to give it to Bieniemy at least once over the top when we were down there.

"There was nothing pretty about it. This team showed a lot of grit in coming back. We made just enough plays to win. We've never had a defense stop our option game the way Stanford did. They gave us problems we never were able to solve right up through the end of the game."

The Cardinal shocked Colorado early, using a long punt return and a turnover to forge a 14-0 lead.

After Bieniemy's two scores, Colorado needed several big plays on its final drive to deny upset-minded Stanford, which was opening its season.

Tight end Jon Boman caught a tipped pass from Darian Hagan for a 30-yard gain. After reaching the Cardinal 25-yard line, Bieniemy slashed off the left side and fumbled the ball ahead of him, but guard Russ Heasley recovered at the 11.

On third and six from the 7, Hagan appeared stopped for a loss but spun away from two defenders and ran to the 2.

Facing fourth and one from the 2, Colorado passed up a sure field goal opportunity, and Hagan sneaked for the first down to the 1. But two subsequent plunges by fullback George Hemingway produced nothing, and a third-down pass fell incomplete. On fourth down, Bieniemy went airborne off the left side for his third score.

"We knew we could march it right down the field," Hagan said of the final drive.

"If we get down there close, I want the call," Bieniemy said.

Bieniemy wasn't surprised at the competitiveness of Stanford, which was 3-8 last season. "When you get ranked up near the top, it's going to be tough every game," he said. "Everybody takes their best shot at you."

Stanford Coach Dennis Green questioned whether Bieniemy's fourth-down leap was a score, saying he wanted to see game film.

"In my opinion, if we were at home, they don't get that call," he said.

He said his defense "had a lot of tackles for losses. We allowed a couple of big plays, but they're a good team and good teams have a tendency to make big plays."

Stanford scored two touchdowns less than two minutes apart in taking a 14-0 halftime lead that could have been bigger.

Glyn Milburn's 73-yard punt return to the Colorado 1 set up quarterback Jason Palumbis's one-yard dive for the first Cardinal touchdown with 5:47 left in the opening period.

On Colorado's next play from scrimmage, Bieniemy fumbled and linebacker Dave Garnett recovered at the Colorado 20. Four plays later, fullback Tommy Vardell scored from the 1 for a 14-0 lead with 4:09 remaining in the quarter.

Stanford, held to just one first down in the second and third quarters combined, finally got its offense going early in the final quarter. Palumbis completed passes of 10 and 19 yards to Milburn and a 13-yarder to Chris Walsh, setting up Hopkins's field goal.

On the previous series, Colorado had missed a 50-yard attempt after Smith dropped an apparent touchdown pass at the goal line.