CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – It’s the first day of fall, and thousands of Illini fans spent it under the first ever Thursday night lights at Memorial Stadium.

“A fall day at Memorial Stadium – it’s the best,” U of I alum Jack Liga said.

The excitement is familiar for alumni and students, but a weeknight football game feels new.

“Oh, it’s very different. I made sure I got all my homework done earlier in the week and cleared the schedule to be here. Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” student Paolo Losacco said.

The school gave away over 10,000 free tickets to students, and about 2,000 to faculty and staff members. Senior Associate Athletics Director Cassie Arner said she’s very happy about it.

“They are used to having Thursday night activities – our student body. We really wanted to have this be a game that focuses on them,” Arner said.

But, she was still “pleasantly surprised” by a very early turnout.

“I drove into the office at 8 o’clock this morning, and we had tailgaters out at that time. Some people have made a day of it just like they would on a Saturday and I appreciate their commitment to it. It’s awesome. The energy was here early,” she said.

Liga was one of those early tailgaters.

“So, I leave Chicago at about 3:30 and I get here at 6 so we can get our spot here to tailgate. Then we just party for the whole day,” he said.

Not everyone could party like it’s a Saturday, but Losacco was ready to tailgate as soon as class ended.

“I set the books down and came right here,” he said.

He hopes to see his classmates do the same. Losacco wants people to have as much passion for Illini football this year as they have for basketball.

“Selling out arenas, getting here early, I want to change the culture,” Losacco said.

There’s something special that keeps bringing fans back – and it’s more than football.

“When you’re far away, you want to come back home. And Champaign is home,” Liga said.

That’s why fans will show up any day of the week for their team.

Associate Director of Athletics Kent Brown said game schedules are different every year. Playing on a Thursday means there’s fewer games happening on TV for them to compete against.