College football: Will Jackrabbit fans fill up Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in the playoffs?

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BROOKINGS — For the second straight year, South Dakota State has claimed the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the FCS playoffs. But it remains to be seen whether SDSU fans will fill up Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium come playoff time.

While the Jackrabbits have been accompanied by record-setting crowds this season, their attendance for previous playoff games has been sparse, leaving their home-field advantage in question ahead of Saturday’s second round matchup against Mercer.

“I think home-field advantage should come from the fans,” SDSU head coach Jimmy Rogers said this week. “We’re hoping for a great turnout for a great football team and this team is much deserving of a full stadium and create a home-field advantage. Not just this game but if we’re able to come out of this with a win, to have it throughout the playoffs.”

Leading up to this game, the fans have come out to support the Jacks in 2023. Attendance at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium has averaged 18,207 fans per game this season – a 16 percent increase from the 2022 average of 15,621 fans and a 28 percent jump from the 2021 season.

But when it comes to the playoffs, it’s been a different story. SDSU averaged 14,166 fans during the 2021 fall season but had just 3,681 fans show up for a first-round playoff game against UC Davis.

While that team entered the playoffs with an 8-3 record and an opening matchup on Thanksgiving weekend, things didn’t change when the Jacks obtained the top seed last year as an average of 6,620 fans attended SDSU’s three playoff games. The total attendance of 19,861 during the playoff run at home was just over the stadium record of 19,431 fans that watched SDSU beat North Dakota State last month and begs the question of why fans haven’t shown up for the season’s most important games.

The obvious element is the weather that has accompanied SDSU’s home schedule. With an outdoor stadium, more fans are willing to show up for an 80-degree day in September as opposed to a 30-degree day in November or December. But this year, the weather has cooperated with an average temperature of 65 degrees including a balmy 54 degrees in their final three home games of the season.

By comparison, Brookings became a tundra during the playoffs last season with an average of 19 degrees over three home games. That included a nine-degree kickoff temperature for an FCS semifinal against Montana State that drew 7,195 fans that mirrored the attitude of the team playing in the cold weather.

“There’s a lot of guys on our football team that chose to come play at South Dakota State in a frigid place during the winter that are not from this area,” Rogers said. “... I think it’s a mindset and if you’re not willing to compete in any conditions, then you’re not really a competitor.”

Despite the small crowd, Rogers believes that number made a difference as the Jacks defeated the Bobcats 39-18 to advance to the national championship game.

“I think the fans that have come out over the years, the die-hards, have been difference makers in our crowds regardless of the size and the weather,” Rogers said. “They have been awesome. Last year’s semifinal game against Montana State was very loud and I don’t know the exact number but I know if we want to get this place as big as we all expect it to be and continue to have the success that we want to get this place as big as what we all expect it to be and continue to have the success we want to have and that our players desire to have. They want to play in front of a fan base that has also bought into it, regardless of elements.”

The other aspect has been the competition the Jacks have faced at home this season. The rotating schedule meant rivalries such as North Dakota and North Dakota State drove more people to Brookings, but the Jacks also faced three teams that made the playoffs at home including a Sept. 9 non-conference matchup with Montana State.

But even if the Jacks played high-level teams at home, it wouldn’t have the same appeal if SDSU didn’t win. The Jacks own an 18-game winning streak at home and a 25-game overall winning streak heading into Saturday’s game against Mercer. With the Jacks also coming off the high of the program’s first national championship a year ago, more fans have come out to support a program that has worked its way to the top of the FCS.

“I think they deserve that,” Rogers said of the big crowds. “They work extremely hard to go out and produce and it’s not just talent. We get a lot of people raving about how our roster is loaded. Our team was recruited and developed here and a lot of guys were not offered Division-I scholarships and this is what they signed up for. It’s come to fruition over the last two years but our players deserve a fan base that is bought in and puts as much effort and wants to be as much as they do.”

The fan support will be key and begin against Mercer. While Saturday’s forecasted temperature is 37 degrees, Rogers hopes the fans show up no matter what the conditions are as SDSU tries to make its way to a second straight national title.

“It can’t just be a ‘show up in Frisco’ type of environment,” Rogers said. “We need everybody in the stands that was here during the earlier months [and] that wanted to be a part of that Montana State game. Those people are needed in the stands this weekend against a very good football team. I think it’s extremely important. We’re doing something at the Division-I level that hasn’t been done before and I think it requires the attention of everybody. If you want to claim to be a part of it, then be a part of it now.”