Notre Dame is suddenly a team on the brink because it can't overcome its own mistakes.
The Fighting Irish have been plagued by turnovers the past seven games, but the mistakes snowballed in an overtime loss to Northwestern last week. A bobbled snap on the point-after attempt that led to the Wildcats defense returning it for a two-point conversion. Ten players on the field for a 60-yard pass completion by Northwestern. Costly penalties, missed assignments, two missed field goals and coach Brian Kelly deciding to go for a two-point conversion when the Irish probably should have gone for one are just some of the examples.
Kelly said Tuesday that the mistakes began to affect everybody.
"I'm not getting paid to make stupid decisions like that," he said. "But you fall into that, right? And so I can't let our players fall into that. So that's what we talked about this week. We cannot let that affect the way we play. We've got to go play and we can't let those things affect us."
The Irish have turned the ball over 23 times, 19 by Everett Golson in the last seven games.
"We're looking for answers. You've got some good ones, I'm all ears," Kelly said. "You guys want to write something down on a piece of paper, slide it to me, I'll take it. We're searching."
The Irish also are looking for answers on defense, where they've allowed 211 points the past five games — the most points in a five-game stretch ever against Notre Dame. That's 45 points more than the Irish gave up in all of 2012 — and that's including the 42 points Alabama scored in the national championship game. It's also 33 points more than this week's opponent, Louisville, has allowed all season.
The Irish will face the Cardinals without their best defensive lineman, Sheldon Day, who is likely out until a bowl game with a sprained knee. Backup defensive lineman Daniel Cage also is out for the Louisville game with the same injury.
Kelly said Golson, who sprained his throwing shoulder against Northwestern, has shown "no ill effects" and is expected to play.
Notre Dame's ability to stop making mistakes and stop giving up big points likely will determine the outcome of the season.
Kelly mentioned earlier in the week how the Irish were close to being 9-1. The Fighting Irish (7-3) were a play away from beating No. 1 Florida State a month ago and narrowly lost to Northwestern despite all the mistakes.
But the Irish are probably just as close to being 5-5. Golson completed a 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-11 with 61 seconds left to beat Stanford 17-14. The Irish also beat North Carolina 50-43 after a controversial roughing penalty late in the third quarter kept a touchdown drive alive.
"I think college football is such that it comes down to a couple of plays and a fine line," Kelly said.
The Irish don't yet have a victory over a power conference opponent that now has a winning record, but Kelly doesn't think the Irish are in dire straits heading into their final two games. He said he reminded the fifth-year seniors, who will be playing their final game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, how the Irish started 4-5 in 2010.
"Those are tough times. Those are difficult times," Kelly said. "This pales in comparison. You're now in a winning environment, and you've won a lot of football games."
Still, losses to Louisville and USC would mark just the fourth time the Irish have finished a season with four straight losses. That would be a stark turnaround for where the Irish were a month ago.