Just about this time last year, Navy reached the critical point of its football season. The Midshipmen were 1-3 going into their annual game against Air Force and Coach Gary Tranquill was convinced a victory would help turn around the season.

Air Force drubbed Navy, 44-17, and the Midshipmen finished 3-8. And now, Navy is looking at the same game in the same way. The Midshipmen are 1-2 and will face a tough team of Falcons Saturday at the academy in Colorado Springs.

"We need this one badly," Navy receiver Ken Heine said. "The loss to Air Force last year put us in the hole and we had a bad year. I think this game is important as far as our season goes."

Heine makes sense. After Air Force, Navy comes home to play Lehigh and Princeton before facing Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Syracuse, South Carolina and Army. If Navy is unable to shake the inconsistent performances of its last two games, losses to Virginia and Arkansas, Tranquill might see another 3-8 season.

"We've had periods of pretty good football, both offensively and defensively, before things turn sour," Tranquill said at today's weekly press luncheon at the Naval Academy. "We have to learn to sustain drives instead of three downs and out, three downs and out. It's not from lack of effort by the players. We're working hard and the guys aren't missing assignments. We've given up too many big plays. Too many mental errors."

The 33-10 loss at Arkansas was a combination of Navy making mental mistakes and being unable to put together any kind of offense in the second half.

"We're only down, 13-10, at the half but we blew a couple of pass coverages and just didn't play as well as we did in the first half," Tranquill said. "Maybe we threw the ball a little too much in the second half. We had some dropped passes and had bad field position and that could be part of the reason for our inconsistencies."

Air Force (3-2) is one of the highest scoring teams in the nation. Running out of the so-called "flexbone" (a wishbone with two split ends), the Falcons have rushed for an average of 333.4 yards (fourth in the nation) and scored 39.6 points (fifth) per game. Both quarterbacks, Brian Knorr and Bart Weiss, are good runners and passers.

"The wishbone won't be a shock to us because we saw it last week," Tranquill said. "Seeing it (wish-bone) on back-to-back weeks has to help us prepare. We should recognize things quicker. Air Force is a good team, the offensive line is good. (Tailback Mike) Brown is a very good back and their defense is better than it's been in the past. They've been a good team the last three or four years. I'm glad they're winning."

The Navy-Air Force series is tied at 8-8 . . . Air Force has won all three 1984 home games while going 0-2 on the road . . . Fisher DeBerry is the Falcons' coaching successor to Ken Hatfield, now Arkansas' coach . . . Navy quarterback Bill Byrne, coming off an 18-for-35 night for 203 yards, now has season passing figures of 39 for 78, 512 yards and four touchdowns . . . Heine had seven receptions for 101 yards against the Razorbacks and totals 16 catches for 207 yards.