The route was wide open.
The pass was perfect.
The ball hit Rueben Randle squarely in the hands in the back of the West Virginia end zone - and it’s in the end zone that the ball fell.
Instead of LSU going up 34-7 on the Mountaineers early in the third quarter, the Tigers came up empty after Drew Alleman missed a 30-yard field goal.
The opening was just wide enough for West Virginia to wriggle through and make a game of it. The Mountaineers pulled within 27-21 before Mo Claiborne poured ice water on the brush fire with his 99-yard kickoff return in what eventually was a 47-21 LSU win.
“When he dropped that pass in the West Virginia game, it really bothered him,” said Jarrett Lee, the quarterback who delivered the pass. “He’s come out in the last couple of games and really made some great plays for us.”
Randle made just one catch - albeit for 37 yards - the next game out against Kentucky. But in LSU’s past two games, Randle has re-emerged as the top target for the nation’s top-ranked team.
The junior from Bastrop had four catches for a career-high 127 yards in a 41-11 rout of Florida on Oct. 8. That included the game’s signature play: A 46-yard bomb from Lee on the Tigers’ second play from scrimmage.
Last Saturday at Tennessee, Randle had five catches for 86 yards - including a 45-yard gain down the Volunteers’ sideline in which he spun away from the defender to set up a first half-ending field goal.
Again in that game Randle opened LSU’s scoring, hauling in a 5-yard slant from Lee at the goal line, though he got smacked hard as the ball came in.
This time, the ball stayed in.
“I feel I’m more focused now on catching the ball,” Randle said. “We could have put the (West Virginia) game away. That’s not a situation I want to happen again.”
With 28 catches for 532 yards and five touchdowns, Randle leads the team in receptions, yards, yards per catch, touchdowns and yards per game. He ranks third in the Southeastern Conference in receiving yards per game (76.0) and seventh in receptions per game (4.0).
Randle is easily on his way to the best of his three seasons as a Tiger. He needs six catches Saturday against No. 19 Auburn (2:30 p.m., CBS) to surpass the mark of 33 catches he set last season and only 13 receiving yards to pass the 544 yards worth of passes he caught in 2010.
“He wants the ball in his hands,” Lee said. “He’s a special player for us.”
Growing up, it was baseball that held the most special place in Randle’s heart.
He played from age 3 all the way through high school, when, as a shortstop, he attracted the attention of scouts from franchises like the Cubs, Angels and Rockies.
But football was where Randle’s star power shined the brightest. He earned Parade and USA Today All-American honors in 2008 as a quarterback, piling up more than 3,100 total yards and 32 combined touchdowns to rank as one of the nation’s most sought-after prospects.
This season, with Terrence Toliver gone, Randle was expected to take the lead.
A player on the 2011 Biletnikoff Award Watch List, Randle has at last moved to the forefront of LSU’s receiver corps.
“A lot of defenses are keyed to stop the run,” Randle said. “We have to be able to take advantage. We’ve got to do a good job (as receivers) making plays.”
His deep baritone voice always seems to produce 10- to 20-second sound bites that belie what his teammates say is a playful side behind his stoic demeanor.
When it comes to this week’s game, though, Randle is all business.
Though he admitted it’s hard not to sometimes think ahead to a potential 1-2 matchup with Alabama on Nov. 5, it’s also not hard to focus on the team straight ahead of them.
LSU also went into last year’s Auburn game 7-0. Despite the fact he pulled in six passes for 73 yards - including a 39-yard halfback pass from Spencer Ware - Auburn won 24-17 and went on to claim the BCS national championship.
“I think we’re focused on last year’s game,” Randle said. “They messed up some plans we had.”
This time around, Auburn can’t win the national championship, but it still possesses enough talent to again foul up LSU’s hopes of title glory.
“It’s an SEC team,” Randle said. “They’re coming in here and we’re No. 1 and they want to knock us off. This is their national championship this year.”
There’s another ball - a crystal football atop the BCS national championship coaches’ trophy - that Randle wants to get his hands on.
If he does, you have to figure he will keep a tight grip.