Montana State fans erupted. The Bobcats forced a fumble to hold on to a crucial victory over rival Montana for the third straight season. It was the greatest goal-line stand Josh Hill had ever seen.

That was the painful part though. Hill wasn’t on the field, running around with teammates in celebration. Recovering from injury, he could only watch.

As a freshman, he was the Big Sky defensive player of the week in the rivalry game. As a junior, Hill missed the first 12 games of last season after surgery in early August, including against the Grizzlies. Hill’s chances to play in such a game are limited, and he missed out.

But Hill healed in time for the final game of last season. Hill’s presence was apparent immediately during fall camp. While the Bobcats are deep at their inside linebacker positions, the senior appears to be the frontrunner for the starting nod in the middle.

“I’m as sore and tired as everybody else,” Hill said with a laugh. “But it’s a really good feeling to be back and to be a part of this again. I wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t special and if this wasn’t something that wasn’t enjoyable.”

The Kalispell native appeared ready for a stellar career when he racked up 54 tackles in 11 starts as a freshman.

Then his body began to wear down. He missed three games due to injury in 2017 but finished with 69 tackles. He then missed the spring of 2018 due to injury before his missed nearly all of last season.

His missed time was partially a result of his physical style, even for his position. But that’s also what’s made him a standout player when he is healthy enough to play.

“Extremely physical, extremely smart and he’s got a quick trigger, man,” said MSU linebackers coach Bobby Daly, who also was a standout linebacker for the Bobcats.

“When he makes a decision, he goes. It’s full speed. I love that about him.”

Hill, dealing with with hip and back ailments which was mostly a product of imbalance and overuse of one side of his body, was finally cleared to play after the Montana victory, MSU’s regular season finale. He went into the week of preparation leading up to the first week of the playoffs solely hoping to practice a few times. He was thrilled simply to be involved in team activity again.

The Bobcats weren’t guaranteed to beat Incarnate Word like they did, but Hill remained sidelined. He wasn’t going to force himself to play with the risk of re-injury.

“We missed him a lot,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate said. “Josh was trying to figure out Josh last year. And in fairness to him, that’s what his priority needed to be in terms of his health and making sure we were making the right decisions in terms of how he progressed with his football career, if there was going to be a football career. “

A glimpse of his possible impact was displayed when the Bobcats played at eventual national champion North Dakota State. Hill made a surprise return and intercepted a pass from Easton Stick, who now plays for the Los Angeles Chargers.

Choate called Hill MSU’s best defensive player in the eventual loss.

But Hill struggled physically during the winter. He was in too much discomfort and pain to move as well as he wanted.

So he slowly worked himself back. He learned from Grant Collins, a graduated MSU middle linebacker who continuously pushed himself to return from injury. Hill couldn’t fully lift weights and workout with the team, so he chose to remain out of spring practices. He recovered through April and May and full participated in team summer workouts.

Still, Daly didn’t know Hill would be available until a couple weeks before fall camp. Even now, Hill’s workload is closely monitored. MSU’s coaches set out specific regiments for Hill, the activities he participates in and how much, and then ask him how he feels after contact drills. If he’s not doing well, they’ll hold him out for a day.

Daly is thinking about the long-term process. And early on, at least, Hill felt great.

“There’s a lot of things his body just wasn’t allowing him to do, and now he feels ready to go and that’s what I wanted to hear from him,” Daly said. “I didn’t want him to have one foot in, one foot out. We wanted him to be all in, and he’s proven that to me thus far.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.