EVANSTON, Ill. – Taryn Gillikin and Alison Fessler have it all figured out.
The two women approach Saturday’s game between fourth-ranked Penn State and Northwestern from a unique perspective because they have sons participating in the game for each team – punter Blake Gillikin and holder Billy Fessler for the Nittany Lions, long snapper Tyler Gillikin and wide receiver Charlie Fessler for the Wildcats.
And they’ve arranged to be as impartial as possible while rooting for their kids. The Gillikins, from Smyrna, Ga., are twins, and Billy Fessler, of Erie, Pa., is 19 months older than his brother.
“My mom is wearing a jersey — half of it is Penn State and half of it is Northwestern, with mine and Charlie’s numbers on it,” Billy Fessler said this week. “So that’s really cool. I know they have a bunch of different shirts saying ‘House divided’ and two different football helmets on it, and stuff like that going around our family.”
Gillikin’s mother has a similar jersey and, according to Penn State coach James Franklin, she plans to spend one half on the Penn State side and one half on the Northwestern side.
The two Nittany Lions play key roles on special teams. Blake Gillikin’s booming punts have helped the Lions’ coverage unit rank among the best in the Big Ten. Fessler, kicker Tyler Davis and the field-goal team haven’t had the same type of success, with Davis entering Saturday’s game only 5 for 11.
Blake Gillikin said he and Billy Fessler have talked about the exceptional experience.
“I think it’s really unique that we have two sets of brothers on opposite teams,” he said. “I’m not sure if any two teams in the country have that. Obviously, we have a lot of family coming to the game, a lot of friends. He’s probably going to outnumber me.
“It’s kind of good to have another guy who’s kind of going through that same experience because it’s definitely different. I’ve never played against my brother before, so I don’t really know what it’s going to be like. So definitely having that other guy there is going to help a lot.”
The brothers seem perfectly matched. Billy Fessler, who’s also a backup quarterback, threw constantly to Charlie throughout their childhood and teen years. Tyler Gillikin snapped the ball back to his brother so Blake could practice his punting – sometimes in their house.
Yes, in the house. Even Franklin could see results of Blake Gillikin’s punting in the house from “the scuff marks and the holes and everything all over the place” on the walls.
“We’d go down the basement – it wasn’t really a high basement,” Blake said. “So he’d fire some balls back and I just wanted to kind of tap the ball, get a spiral going. I’d hit the ceiling sometimes, and the ball left some pretty significant scuff marks on the ceiling. So that kind of migrated to our foyer outside our living room.”
Billy Fessler said that he and his brother don’t have any little bets going into the game, and that his hope is for his brother to go out and play his best but that “the scoreboard shows that Penn State has at least one more point than Northwestern has.”
As for the Gillikins, Blake said the two have talked a little more this week “but nothing too bad, no smack talk yet.
“Probably say a few things on the field, but that’s about it,” he said.
Penn State at Northwestern
Saturday, noon, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
TV: 6ABC. Radio: WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).
Records: Penn State, 5-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten, ranked No. 4 in the AP poll. Northwestern, 2-2, 0-1.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (30-15 in fourth season at Penn State, 54-30 overall). Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald (79-64 in 12th season at Northwestern, and overall).
History: Penn State leads, 13-5.
Last meeting: Northwestern, 23-21, Nov. 7, 2015, at Evanston.
What will Saquon Barkley do this week? In his last three games, the Heisman Trophy front-runner has caught a touchdown pass, rushed for a touchdown, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and thrown a touchdown pass.
Trace McSorley remained perfect last week, throwing at least one touchdown pass for the 20th straight game, or every game he has played since replacing an injured Christian Hackenberg in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl.
Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, considered by some as the Big Ten’s best running back not named Saquon Barkley, rushed for 186 yards against Penn State two years ago and is at 4,402 rushing yards for his career.
Nittany Lions senior middle linebacker Jason Cabinda was all over the field last week with 14 tackles against Indiana. His counterpart with the Wildcats is redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher, who leads his team in tackles.
After recording just one sack last week, the Nittany Lions will be facing a Northwestern team that allowed eight sacks against Wisconsin in its last game. But Penn State needs to protect McSorley better after suffering five sacks a week ago.
The game will match two of the Big Ten’s best punters: Penn State’s Blake Gillikin (44.4-yard average) and Northwestern’s Hunter Niswander (45.7). The two likely will have to deal with 20-mph winds and some rain during the game.
Tight end Mike Gesicki is expected back in Penn State’s lineup after leaving in the third quarter of last week’s game against Indiana with an undisclosed injury.