The last time Penn State played Northwestern, the Gillikin twins watched the game on separate floors of the same house.
Blake Gillikin, then a high-school punter committed to Penn State, watched in the basement. Tyler Gillikin, a long snapper planning to walk-on at Northwestern, watched upstairs. Northwestern won that 2015 game 23-21, and Tyler hasn’t let his older brother (by one minute) forget it since.
“We call pretty much every single week before our games,” Tyler Gillikin said. “And that game, every single time, has come up in some way or fashion.”
Blake could change the conversation Saturday, when he and Tyler play against each other for the first time. Penn State’s visit to Northwestern features two sets of brothers on opposing teams: the Gillikin twins from Atlanta and the Fesslers (Penn State quarterback/kick holder Billy and Northwestern receiver Charlie) from Erie. The Gillikins, in particular, expect a memorable weekend.
Blake and Tyler’s maternal grandparents bought an RV before the season and are touring Big Ten cities this fall to attend their grandsons’ games. They spent a few weeks in State College before driving to Madison, Wisconsin, for Northwestern’s game against Wisconsin last week. On Saturday, their RV will fly both Penn State and Northwestern flags outside Evanston.
Meanwhile, Taryn and Walt Gillikin will wear custom-made, purple-and-white Penn State/Northwestern jerseys to recognize their sons: Blake’s No. 93 on the white side, Tyler’s No. 43 on the purple side.
“This is a really big deal for my family,” Blake said. “It will be really special for us to see each other on the field.”
Sports lives intertwined: Since childhood, Blake and Tyler’s sports lives have intertwined. As 9-year-olds they played baseball together for a Georgia state title, with Tyler pitching and Blake at shortstop.
At The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, the Gillikins helped the football team to a 2015 Georgia state championship. Blake, the kicker and punter, made a 54-yard field goal. Tyler, a defensive end and team captain, made the game-ending tackle.
Tyler also was Blake’s high-school long snapper, a skill he learned from his father, who snapped in high school and swam at the University of North Carolina. Tyler thought snapping simply would be a side job. Instead, it helped him land on Northwestern’s football team.
Blake was a high-profile punting recruit, receiving offers from across the SEC and Big Ten (including Northwestern) before choosing Penn State. When he made a recruiting visit to the Gillikin home, Penn State coach James Franklin noted the scuff marks and holes in the walls from the brothers’ practice sessions.
Other coaches noticed as well. When they visited Blake or watched his film, coaches invariably asked about the long snapper. Blake proudly said, “It’s my brother.”
“Long snappers are the forgotten position in recruiting,” Blake said. “I give him credit for how he handled that process. He always had a plan. He wanted to go to Northwestern, regardless of football. When he got the opportunity to play football there, it was too good to pass up.”
Excelling in college: Tyler, a redshirt freshman, won Northwestern’s starting job at long snapper this season. He still catches as many of Blake’s games as possible and has watched his brother become one of the nation’s top punters.
An all-Big Ten pick as a freshman in 2016, Blake averages 44.4 yards per attempt, with a career-long of 69 yards last year. He has consistently given Penn State field-position advantages this season, with six punts of 50 yards or longer and 62 percent of his attempts landing inside the 20-yard line.
“Probably one of the biggest differences in our program in year four compared to years one and two is drive start, field position and punting,” Franklin said.
Blake began his football career as a defensive back, a position he liked but admittedly didn’t have the speed to play in high school. But he could kick and punt (“He always had a thing for kicking things,” Tyler said) and by ninth grade knew he could excel at both.
Blake initially wanted to pursue kicking, but college recruiters considered him a better punter. Soon, Blake thought the same.
“I saw how much it aligned with my personality,” he said. “If you ask people, I’m a perfectionist in many aspects of my life. Punting is so difficult and so detail-oriented, it attracted me.”
The brothers are detail-oriented off the field as well. Blake, enrolled in Penn State’s Schreyer’s Honors College, is majoring in kinesiology. Tyler, a pre-med student majoring in biology, spent a few weeks this summer shadowing doctors in Chicago. Both want to pursue careers as orthopedic surgeons.
“When you have twin brothers who strive to do the exact same thing academically and athletically, you’re going to have competition,” Tyler said. “And I think that’s what made us both better.”