For Navy and Maryland, Saturday's games are significant not so much for what a victory would bring, but for what effect a loss could have.

If Air Force, with probably the best offensive team in its history, defeats Navy, the Commander-in-Chief's trophy -- awarded to the overall winner of games among the three service academies -- could leave Annapolis for the first time since 1977. Should Indiana State defeat Maryland in a 1:30 game at College Park, the Terrapins' two-game winning streak would end -- against a Division I-AA team.

The first possibility would make Air Force's season. "Our first goal since I've been here is winning the Commander-in-Chief's trophy; second is winning the WAC (Western Athletic Conference), and third is beating Notre Dame," said Coach Ken Hatfield.

In 1980, the Falcons were so close to success, they could almost reach out and touch the three-sided prize. After Air Force edged Navy, 21-20, an Air Force officer called Annapolis and wanted to arrange delivery.

He was told to beat Army first. Then a call was placed to Athletic Director Carl Ullrich at West Point. Ullrich passed along word of the Falcons' overconfidence to his football team. Underdog Army won easily, 47-24, and when Navy beat Army, the trophy stayed at Annapolis.

An ironic note for the Falcons is the fact that the trophy came about at the suggestion of Gen. George B. Simler, a onetime athletic director at the Air Force Academy who also played football at Maryland.

The Navy-Air Force series has become more intense in recent years, after a modest beginning in the shadow of the old Army-Navy rivalry.

Navy fans still talk about the gag they pulled on a company of cadets at the 1975 game in RFK Stadium. Someone in the dress of an Air Force general stepped out of a limousine in front of the Falcons' cheering section and a gold-spangled aide summoned the cadets to attention. As they rose and saluted, the Navy goat followed the impostors out of the limousine.

Harsh words from the Air Force camp have contributed to the rivalry. Air Force assistants were heard maligning Navy players after the Falcons won here, 13-3, in 1976. Since then, the Midshipmen have won four of five, losing only in 1980.

Hatfield was quoted as explaining Navy's success by saying Navy lowered its academic standards to accommodate football players. So Cmdr. Dave Church, the Navy liaison for this game, flew here earlier this week, carrying papers that showed a difference of one-hundredth of a point in the grade point averages of the football team and the rest of the brigade.

One Air Force Academy official with nothing but good feelings toward the Midshipmen is the athletic director, Col. John Clune. He was an all-America basketball player at Annapolis in the mid 1950s.

A crowd of 40,000, which would be the most to see Navy here since the inaugural in 1966, is expected Saturday as long as the possible snow forecast overnight does not materialize.

"There is more interest in this game than any other on our schedule," Hatfield said. "We're doing a few more things offensively, which has the people excited, and with the NFL out (on strike), the fans are looking our way."

After five games, the Falcons (2-3) list four runners with more than 200 yards, led by fullback John Kershner with 454 on 80 carries. Quarterback Marty Louthan directs the wishbone offense efficiently and has passed for 79 yards and run for 357.

In last week's 49-37 loss to New Mexico, Air Force scored on a 72-yard run by Louthan, a 77-yard kickoff return by Dennis Moore and an 81-yard run by halfback Derek Foster.

"A lot of things have come together at once on offense," Hatfield said. "We have an experienced quarterback, a little more speed, good receivers and an offensive line with four seniors. On defense, it's just the opposite. We have eight new people and we haven't stopped anybody."

For Maryland, Indiana State is the "easy" game of the year. The Terrapins scheduled the Sycamores to fill the void left when Villanova dropped its football program before last season.

The Terrapins' rushing defense (47 yards yielded per game) is ranked only behind Notre Dame and North Carolina. However, Maryland ranks last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in pass defense, and Coach Bobby Ross expressed displeasure this week at his team's inability to defend against short- to medium-range passes between the linebackers and secondary.

In the other two area games of significance, Howard, outscored, 131-12, in its last three starts, is at home against MEAC opponent Delaware State at 1 p.m. and winless Virginia will play an 8 p.m. ACC game in Charlottesville against Clemson, which has defeated the Cavaliers the 21 times they've met in a series dating to 1955. graphics /photo: AP Midshipman quarterback Marco Pagnanelli (15) completed 15 of 17 passes in last week's victory over previously unbeaten Duke.