Despite the effort to beef up the defense, explosive offensive plays still provide the sizzle for Oregon football.

So the 27,317 fans who showed up for Saturday’s spring game, in which Thunder (offense) defeated Lightning (defense) 41-7, left Autzen Stadium with happy thoughts about what the Ducks could be in 2018.

“I didn’t like the scoring system at all,” sophomore nose guard Jordon Scott said. “But I know the spring game is for the fans. I know that we’re going to come in the fall and be ready to stop anybody. That’s all that matters.”

A total of seven touchdowns, including six in the first half, were scored during the public showcase that wrapped up Mario Cristobal’s first spring as coach.

The play everyone was talking about after the game was the lone defensive score — Kaulana Apelu’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The senior linebacker, a starter in 2017 before suffering a season-ending leg injury, snagged a tipped Justin Herbert pass on fourth-and-goal and took it to the house. Along the way, Apelu put several moves on the star quarterback during a highlight that will be hard for Herbert to watch on film.

“He always does it to us in practice,” Apelu said. “I mean, Justin is a great player, happy to have him on our team.

“It just feels good to be back coming off an injury. It hurts inside obviously, and it’s a long process. It felt good to be out there.”

Herbert, who dominated an open scrimmage in Portland two weeks earlier, completed 12-of-21 passes for 126 yards with one touchdown and the pick-six.

With Jim Leavitt back in the fold, the Ducks want to be known for defense, too.

“We need to work hard in practice and do the little things right so we can be a defense that people are afraid of and be ranked higher in the country than we were last year,” safety Brady Breeze said. “You could tell two years ago our defense wasn’t respected. People thought we were soft and stuff.

“We’re starting to gain a little more respect, but our goal is just to keep competing and get that respect of the teams we play.”

Cristobal rattled off a list of defensive players that earned his respect over the course of 14 practices and the spring game.

Redshirt freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia and Keith Simms have given the linebacker room additional playmakers to take some of the pressure off Troy Dye.

And the 5-foot-10, 204-pound Apelu, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship last August, is more than just a feel-good story to the Ducks.

“Lana is instinctive and Lana is a great leader because he just has a nose for the football,” Cristobal said. “Don’t let his stature mislead you. He hits and he hits hard, and he knocks guys back. Our guys rally around him. They really feel that he’s one of those guys that can change the momentum in our favor. …

“Whenever a guy like that does well, it just inspires the whole team. It was great to see him make that play today.”

Apelu led the defense with nine tackles, and Simms added eight tackles and a sack. Fotu Leiato had five tackles and three of the Lightning’s five sacks.

Sophomore cornerback Thomas Graham and true freshman safety Verone McKinley each had two pass breakups.

But the Thunder still won the day.

The three quarterbacks behind Herbert combined to compete 14-of-23 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.

True freshman Tyler Shough threw a 36-yard touchdown to redshirt freshman wide receiver Daewood Davis and a 29-yard touchdown to redshirt freshman running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio.

Sophomore Braxton Burmeister added a 25-yard touchdown pass to walk-on receiver Jack Vecchi and also converted a couple of third-and-long situations with his scrambling ability.

Walk-on Mike Irwin took a few snaps and completed two passes before the running clock in the second half hit zero.

“They’re pushing each other, that’s the best part,” Cristobal said. “There is no settling by Justin, ‘Hey, I’m the guy. I’m just going to coast into this thing.’ It’s the opposite. I promise he’s in there saying I should have made another 10 plays; that’s the kind of competitor he is.”

Herbert’s interception came on a pass intended for Brenden Schooler, the star of the Portland scrimmage. The attempt was tipped by sophomore cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, another of the defensive players that caught the coach’s eye.

As Apelu zigzagged down the field with Herbert giving chase, wide receiver Johnny Johnson was also hustling and made a tackle at the goal line.

“I’m not going to lie, I thought about it,” outside linebacker La’Mar Winston, who was trailing Apelu on the interception return, said of being tempted to put a block on Herbert. “Justin is imperative to our production, so I just laid off of him, but I was itching for it. Lana gave him a nice juke, had Herbert looking, so we avoided that contact. Then Johnny came from 100 yards away and tackled Lana somehow.

“It was an amazing play to say the least.”

Cristobal hopes the sequence is a microcosm of how the players will compete during summer workouts and throughout fall camp.

Oregon has a chance to get out of the gates quickly with a favorable schedule that includes four more appearances at Autzen Stadium to begin the season.

“We’re pleased with the progress, at the same time knowing that there are several things we need to continue to work on,” Cristobal said. “Obviously we had that turnover down there in the red zone. That thing hurt.”

Ultimately, what really mattered on Saturday was Herbert did not get hurt.

“He’s an important part of our team so I try to stay away from him,” Scott said. “Even if I get off a block or whatever, I try to run away from him because I don’t want to put our season in jeopardy.”