Twins duke it out 'for all the marbles' when Penn State visits Northwestern

The way the Gillikin twins see it, it's OK to root for one another Saturday even though they'll be on opposite sidelines at Ryan Field.

Tyler long-snaps for Northwestern. Blake punts for Penn State.

"We're blood," Blake said. "And our coaches here preach that family comes before football."

Tyler put it like this: "I hope he's out on the field a lot."

That would mean Heisman Trophy favorite Saquon Barkley is off the field a lot.

Tyler imagined a scenario in which Blake booms an 80-yard punt only to have Northwestern return it for a touchdown.

"I'd love to hold that over his head," Tyler said.

The brothers want to put on a good show not only for their parents, Walt and Taryn, who made the trip from Atlanta. Maternal grandparents Barb and Coby Gaulien also will be in the stands. They bought a motor home to hopscotch to the twins' games this fall.

Last week they traveled to Madison, Wis., where Tyler performed well enough in the Wildcats' 33-24 loss to Wisconsin to be named Northwestern's special teams player of the week.

A long snapper as special teams player of the week?

"Coach Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald) might have done that to give me extra confidence going into this game," Tyler reasoned.

The Gillikins will be easy to spot in Evanston, wearing half-Wildcat, half-Nittany Lion jerseys with Blake's No. 93 on the white side and Tyler's No. 43 on the purple side. (If you see another family wearing equal amounts of blue and purple at Ryan Field, it's a safe bet they're related to the Fesslers — Charlie plays receiver at Northwestern; Billy is a holder and backup quarterback for Penn State.)

Walt Gillikin has a graduate degree from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management but remains loyal to his alma mater, North Carolina, and both of his sons.

"Everyone keeps asking: Who do you want to win?" said Walt, a commercial real estate executive. "My stock response: I didn't jump on the (Northwestern) bandwagon when I was there. You cheer for your undergrad school."

The family visited Northwestern during the boys' junior year in high school. While Blake and Walt met with the NU coaches, Tyler and Taryn took a regular campus tour.

Tyler figured he would either go to Northwestern as a regular student or play Ivy League football. He wound up joining the Wildcats as a preferred walk-on.

"I love the South," he said, "but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone."

Blake, meanwhile, had a bevy of schools in pursuit as the nation's No. 2 punter in the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Like bigger brother Tyler (one inch taller, 15 to 20 pounds heavier), Blake was an honor-roll student.

Blake started every game last year and was named to ESPN.com's True Freshman All-America team after averaging 42.8 yards per boot. Two weeks ago against Iowa, he placed three punts inside the 10-yard line.

"He's killing it," Tyler said. "I'm proud of what he's doing."

The boys grew up, as Walt put it, "competitive but complementary." They played on the same baseball and basketball teams but, because Tyler was bigger, rarely the same position.

Walt told the boys two important things: "You don't have to be each other's cheerleader, but never cheer against one another."

And this: "You will always be stronger together than you are apart."

Tyler helped Blake develop as a punter by long-snapping to him hundreds of times in their basement and on practice fields.

Blake helped Tyler too. When NU defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz ventured to Atlanta to watch Blake punt, he noticed the heat on the long snaps and asked: Who is that?

"I didn't publicize myself," Tyler said. "Blake did it for me."

The boys usually FaceTime on Friday evenings before their games. Their schedules are so demanding, they haven't seen each other since May.

There will be no friendly wagering on the game — no pushups, nothing. Penn State and Northwestern will not meet in 2018 or 2019, so barring a Big Ten title game collision, this will be it.

"This is for all the marbles," Blake said, "for the rest of our lives."

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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