New York Times crossword Feb. 24 / Constructed by Joe DiPietro
About 30 minutes into this difficult puzzle — still struggling mightily to figure out the theme as well as some regular entries — I was ready to throw up my hands and cry “No mas!” That’s what Roberto DURAN (“Boxer nicknamed ‘Hands of Stone,'” 123 Across) famously said during his bout with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980.
But rather than surrendering, as the puzzle’s title would have me do, I continued to LINGER OVER (“Keep at awhile,” 74 Down) the grid. And it paid off when I finally figured out how to translate the thematic “Back down” clues: You have to enter them in reverse (“back”), and then at a right angle (“down”).
For 22 Across, the answer is BEAT A HASTY RETREAT. But you have to enter it backwards, beginning with the last square (below 11 Down), and then turn down when you run out of room. So 22 Across looks like RTER YTSAH A TAEB, with the last part of RETREAT coming from 1 Down’s FIRE AT (“Try to shoot”).
A shorter theme answer — CAPITULATE — can be found at 24 Across. It’s entered backward as UTIPAC, with the LATE coming from 12 Down’s ULULATE (“Loudly lament”).
Other answers to the “Back down” clues are HEAD FOR THE HILLS (43 Across), PULL OUT (53 Across), LOSE ONE’S NERVE (65 Across), WITHDRAW (82 Across), GIVE SOME GROUND (90 Across), CRY UNCLE (112 Across) and WAVE THE WHITE FLAG (115 Across).
When I first saw the title, I thought maybe the theme answers would be common phrases with the letter “I” dropped, or “surrendered.” Nope. Then I tried to see if “flag” or “uncle” or “towel” might be squeezed into a single box. Nope. I finally figured it out after solving the bottom right corner of the puzzle, where the crossing answers gave me EHT EVAW as part of the “Back down” answer for 115 Across. I immediately saw the reverse of WAVE THE and puzzled it out from there, eventually noticing how it incorporated LAG at 115 Down (“Not keep up”).
This was a really challenging puzzle. You can see from my grid that I had a lot of false starts, even with some of the regular entries. It occurred to me that Will Shortz and clever constructor Joe DiPietro could have switched the title and theme clues, calling the puzzle “Back Down” and using “Surrender” for the repeated clues.
Doubled-Up Dept.: “Lays to rest” is INTERS (2 Down) while “Lay to rest” is ENTOMB (“66 Down”).
For Fun Dept.: Some long answers that weren’t part of the theme include FUEL SPILLS (“Slick ones?” 3 Down), CAT-EYED (“Capable of seeing in the dark,” 8 Down), ORAL EXAM (“Certain grilling,” 9 Down), SENIOR BOWL (“Postseason football game played in Mobile, Ala.” 67 Down) and MASTER PLAN (“What’s the big idea?” 20 Down).
Say What? Dept.: “Apologues,” which I’ve never heard of, is apparently a fancy word for FABLES (45 Down).
Hometown Shout-Out Dept.: Regular readers know I try to find a Philly-related clue in each puzzle to give props to my adopted hometown. Couldn’t find one in today’s grid, so I’ll give a nod to Los Angeles — my actual hometown — where you can find saber-tooth cats and other Ice Age creatures at the La BREA Tar Pits (97 Across). Seriously.
Whoops! Dept.: Eagle-eyed readers Mary and George point out that in my solved grid, 77 Across should be PALTERS, not PATTERS (“Talks without sincerity”), making “Author Canetti” ELIAS (70 Down). Thanks for spotting the error!