Big Sky Conference

FINAL RIVALRY: Horner anticipating last battle with Bobcats


MISSOULA — Josh Horner returned to the game he missed for a moment like the one he will experience Saturday.

Being rendered to helplessly watching his teammates fight to no avail in a loss to their bitter rivals a year ago motivates him on a different level as Horner and UM’s seniors makes their final trip to Bozeman.

After a standout career as a quarterback at Great Falls C.M. Russell High School, Horner dreamed of playing for Montana. But he also needed a break. After taking a season off, he returned to carve out a role first as a tight end and then as the catalyst for what has morphed into the H wide receiver position for the Griz.

As a junior last season, the 6-foot-5, 232-pounder suffered a season-ending knee injury that cost him Montana’s last four games of 2016. He watched from the sideline as Montana State pounded the Griz into submission in a 24-17 victory to keep UM out of the playoffs for the first time for the first time in Horner’s Griz career and just the third time since 1993. On Saturday, he will get a chance to help Montana earn redemption.

“Watching it from the sideline, it was little things we were doing wrong that we’ve worked all year to clean up,” Horner said. “We use that game as a model of what we can’t play like. We are excited to get back out there and get that taste out of our mouth and try to get that trophy back.”

Montana senior wide receiver Josh Horner/ by Jason Bacaj

As a senior at CMR, Horner threw for 1,392 yards and 10 touchdowns while adding 1,036 yards rushing and 27 rushing touchdowns. He earned Class AA first-team all-state honors. In the semifinals of the Class AA playoffs, CMR cut the Butte High lead to 37-36. Legendary Rustlers’ head coach Jack Johnson elected to go for two and the victory. On a quarterback keeper, the Bulldogs stopped Horner at the goal line.

That was the last snap Horner would on the gridiron for a calendar year. He did not go to school or play football in 2013. He held offers from Montana, Montana State, Montana Tech, MSU-Northern and Carroll College coming out of high school. Upon his return in 2014, he chose the Griz.

“I just needed some time away but taking that year off, I missed it so much, I knew I had to find a way to play again,” Horner said. “Going into this game against the ‘Cats, games like this are why I came back.”

Horner played tight end for former head coach Mick Delaney his freshman season. Horner was close to 30 pounds lighter then, a distinct disadvantage for an in-line tight end.

“The hardest part has been gaining weight and being asked to do something I hadn’t done before,” Horner said. “I played a little bit of tight end in high school is a little bit different than Big Sky tight end. Blocking the bigger guys, the bigger d-linemen, focusing on my footwork and getting stronger in the weight room has been a process.”

With the arrival of Bob Stitt as UM’s head coach in 2015, the Griz shifted into a spread offense that got rid of the tight ends. Horner continued to build up his body. As his mass increased, so did his physicality at the point of attack. The athleticism that made him an all-state selection in basketball combined with his understanding of route combinations because of his time as a quarterback helped evolve as a pass catcher.

UM wide receiver Josh Horner (80), and former Griz wide receivers Ben Roberts (88) and Jamaal Jones (6) during the Cat-Griz game in 2015 in Bozeman/ by Brooks Nuanez

By the second half of his sophomore season, his skill set changed the concept of the H receiver in Stitt’s offense.

“He’s been a fun player to coach because of that evolution,” UM third-year wide receivers coach Mike Ferriter said. “To see him grow and develop through all of what we have asked him to do.

“ Initially, when we came in, he changed the position of our H receiver. Him single-handedly, he changed it because initially, it was built to be a bigger, taller true receiver but in 2015 when some things got shook up, the Josh Horner position was us becoming more of an 11 personnel and truly using a tight end. It was based mostly around his skill set, his ability to be split out and be a great receiver but also get down in the trenches and block like a true tight end.”

Horner’s ability to find spots in South Dakota State’s zone defensive coverage scheme led to six crucial catches for 80 yards in UM’s 24-17 first-round playoff win in 2015. He finished with 22 catches for 294 yards and one touchdown.

“He’s got a really good feel for spaces and defenses and he has a nose for the ball. He’s a smart player in that aspect,” UM sophomore H receiver Colin Bingham said earlier this season. “He’s always in the right place at the right time.”

UM wide reciever Joshn Horner takes on a group of SDSU defenders in the 2015 playoffs/by Brooks Nuanez

Despite the injury that cost him the final three games of the season, Horner still produced as a junior in 2016. He caught 22 passes for 241 yards and four touchdowns.

“You can spread him out and he’s good in one on one situations because he’s a mismatch,” Ferriter said. “If you put a safety on him, he’s bigger. If you put a linebacker on him, he’s faster. But he has the ability to get down and block defensive ends and linebackers in the trenches and that makes him so dynamic. That makes him so difficult to defend.”

“He’s one of those guys, that when you need something to happen offensively, you throw it his way and he’s going to find a way to come up with a play,” Stitt added on Wednesday.

Ferriter, an All-Big Sky receiver at UM who wrapped up his career with a 35-3 whipping of the Bobcats before helping the Griz surge to the FCS national championship game, lauds Horner for his consistent demeanor. It’s something that his teammates notice and respect as well.

“Horner is just the most cool, calm and confident guy I’ve ever met,” Bingham said. ‘Nothing phases him. You can’t get to him no matter what. He’s cool all the time.”

Montana senior wide receiver Josh Horner/ by Jason Bacaj

That cool will be necessary Saturday at Bobcat Stadium in a sure to be electric environment playing against a desperate MSU team (4-6) with nothing to lose. Horner knows this is the end of the road, at least when it comes to the fiercest rivalry in his home state. He and his fellow seniors hope for a victory to ensure at least one more week together.

“The love and support we get and the brotherhood you make with your teammates is unforgettable,” Horner said. “The relationships you make. Being from Montana, it means a lot to represent on this weekend. There’s only three seniors from Montana on the team so to be a part of that is surreal.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Josh Horner. All Rights Reserved.


About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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